Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 21

His Sense of Rivalry; His Love of Life and Laziness

The more I considered the matter, the more clearly I saw, or thought I saw, that the only chance of salvation for Oscar was to get him to work, to give him some purpose in life, and the reader should remember here that at this time I had not read “De Profundis” and did not know that Oscar in prison had himself recognised this necessity. After all, I said to myself, nothing is lost if he will only begin to write. A man should be able to whistle happiness and hope down the wind and take despair to his bed and heart, and win courage from his harsh companion. Happiness is not essential to the artist: happiness never creates anything but memories. If Oscar would work and not brood over the past and study himself like an Indian Fakir, he might yet come to soul-health and achievement. He could win back everything; his own respect, and the respect of his fellows, if indeed that were worth winning. An artist, I knew, must have at least the self-abnegation of the hero, and heroic resolution to strive and strive, or he will never bring it far even in his art. If I could only get Oscar to work, it seemed to me everything might yet come right. I spent a week with him, lunching and dining and putting all this before him, in every way.

I noticed that he enjoyed the good eating and the good drinking as intensely as ever. He was even drinking too much I thought, was beginning to get stout and flabby again, but the good living was a necessity to him, and it certainly did not prevent him from talking charmingly. But as soon as I pressed him to write he would shake his head:

“Oh, Frank, I cannot, you know my rooms; how could I write there? A horrid bedroom like a closet, and a little sitting room without any outlook. Books everywhere; and no place to write; to tell you the truth I cannot even read in it. I can do nothing in such miserable poverty.”

Again and again he came back to this. He harped upon his destitution, so that I could not but see purpose in it. He was already cunning in the art of getting money without asking for it. My heart ached for him; one goes down hill with such fatal speed and ease, and the mire at the bottom is so loathsome. I hastened to say:

“I can let you have a little money; but you ought to work, Oscar. After all why should anyone help you, if you will not help yourself? If I cannot aid you to save yourself, I am only doing you harm.”

“A base sophism, Frank, mere sophistry, as you know: a good lunch is better than a bad one for any living man.”

I smiled, “Don’t do yourself injustice: you could easily gain thousands and live like a prince again. Why not make the effort?”

“If I had pleasant, sunny rooms I’d try. . . . It’s harder than you think.”

“Nonsense, it’s easy for you. Your punishment has made your name known in every country in the world. A book of yours would sell like wildfire; a play of yours would draw in any capital. You might live here like a prince. Shakespeare lost love and friendship, hope and health to boot — everything, and yet forced himself to write ‘The Tempest.’ Why can’t you?”

“I’ll try, Frank, I’ll try.”

I may just mention here that any praise of another man, even of Shakespeare, was sure to move Oscar to emulation. He acknowledged no superior. In some articles in The Saturday Review I had said that no one had ever given completer record of himself than Shakespeare. “We know him better than we know any of our contemporaries,” I went on, “and he is better worth knowing.” At once Oscar wrote to me objecting to this phrase. “Surely, Frank, you have forgotten me. Surely, I am better worth knowing than Shakespeare?”

The question astonished me so that I could not make up my mind at once; but when he pressed me later I had to tell him that Shakespeare had reached higher heights of thought and feeling than any modern, though I was probably wrong in saying that I knew him better than I knew a living man.

I had to go back to England and some little time elapsed before I could return to Paris; but I crossed again early in the summer, and found he had written nothing.

I often talked with him about it; but now he changed his ground a little.

“I can’t write, Frank. When I take up my pen all the past comes back: I cannot bear the thoughts . . . regret and remorse, like twin dogs, wait to seize me at any idle moment. I must go out and watch life, amuse, interest myself, or I should go mad. You don’t know how sore it is about my heart, as soon as I am alone. I am face to face with my own soul; the Oscar of four years ago, with his beautiful secure life, and his glorious easy triumphs, comes up before me, and I cannot stand the contrast. . . . My eyes burn with tears. If you care for me, Frank, you will not ask me to write.”

“You promised to try,” I said somewhat harshly, “and I want you to try. You haven’t suffered more than Dante suffered in exile and poverty; yet you know if he had suffered ten times as much, he would have written it all down. Tears, indeed! the fire in his eyes would have dried the tears.”

“True enough, Frank, but Dante was all of one piece whereas I am drawn in two different directions. I was born to sing the joy and pride of life, the pleasure of living, the delight in everything beautiful in this most beautiful world, and they took me and tortured me till I learned pity and sorrow. Now I cannot sing the joy, heartily, because I know the suffering, and I was never made to sing of suffering. I hate it, and I want to sing the love songs of joy and pleasure. It is joy alone which appeals to my soul; the joy of life and beauty and love — I could sing the song of Apollo the Sun–God, and they try to force me to sing the song of the tortured Marsyas.”

This to me was his true and final confession. His second fall after leaving prison had put him “at war with himself.” This is, I think, the very heart of truth about his soul; the song of sorrow, of pity and renunciation was not his song, and the experience of suffering prevented him from singing the delight of life and the joy he took in beauty. It never seemed to occur to him that he could reach a faith which should include both self-indulgence and renunciation in a larger acceptance of life.

In spite of his sunny nature he had a certain amount of jealousy and envy in him which was always brought to light by the popular success of those whom he had known and measured. I remember his telling me once that he wrote his first play because he was annoyed at the way Pinero was being praised —“Pinero, who can’t write at all: he is a stage-carpenter and nothing else. His characters are made of dough; and never was there such a worthless style, or rather such a complete absence of style: he writes like a grocer’s assistant.”

I noticed now that this trait of jealousy was stronger in him than ever. One day I showed him an English illustrated paper which I had bought on my way to lunch. It contained a picture of George Curzon (I beg his pardon, Lord Curzon) as Viceroy of India. He was photographed in a carriage with his wife by his side: the gorgeous state carriage drawn by four horses, with outriders, and escorted by cavalry and cheering crowds — all the paraphernalia and pomp of imperial power.

“Do you see that?” cried Oscar angrily; “fancy George Curzon being treated like that. I know him well; a more perfect example of plodding mediocrity was never seen in the world. He had never a thought or phrase above the common.”

“I know him pretty well, too,” I replied. “His incurable commonness is the secret of his success. He ‘voices,’ as he would say himself, the opinion of the average man on every subject. He might be a leader-writer on the Mail or Times. What do you know of the average man or of his opinions? But the man in the street, as he is called today, can only learn from the man who is just one step above himself, and so the George Curzons come to success in life. That, too, is the secret of the popularity of this or that writer. Hall Caine is an even larger George Curzon, a better endowed mediocrity.”

“But why should he have fame and state and power?” Oscar cried indignantly.

“State and power, because he is George Curzon, but fame he never will have, and I suspect if the truth were known, in the moments when he too comes face to face with his own soul, as you say, he would give a good deal of his state and power for a very little of your fame.”

“That is probably true, Frank,” cried Oscar, “that is almost certainly the crumpled rose-leaf of his couch, but how grossly he is over-estimated and over-rewarded. . . . Do you know Wilfred Blunt?”

“I have met him,” I replied, “but don’t know him. We met once and he bragged preposterously about his Arab ponies. I was at that time editor of The Evening News: and Mr. Blunt tried hard to talk down to my level.”

“He is by way of being a poet, and he has a very real love of literature.”

“I know,” I said; “I really know his work and a good deal about him and have nothing but praise for the way he championed the Egyptians, and for his poetry when he has anything to say.”

“Well, Frank, he had a sort of club at Crabbett Park, a club for poets, to which only poets were invited, and he was a most admirable and perfect host. Lady Blunt could never make out what he was up to. He used to get us all down to Crabbett, and the poet who was received last had to make a speech about the new poet — a speech in which he was supposed to tell the truth about the new-comer. Blunt took the idea, no doubt, from the custom of the French Academy. Well, he asked me down to Crabbett Park, and George Curzon, if you please, was the poet picked to make the speech about me.”

“Good God,” I cried, “Curzon a poet. It’s like Kitchener being taken for a great captain, or Salisbury for a statesman.”

“He writes verses, Frank, but of course there is not a line of poetry in him: his verses are good enough though, well-turned, I mean, and sharp, if not witty. Well, Curzon had to make this speech about me after dinner. We had a delightful dinner, quite perfect, and then Curzon got up. He had evidently prepared his speech carefully, it was bristling with innuendoes; sneering side-hits at strange sins. Everyone looked at his fellow and thought the speech the height of bad taste.

“Mediocrity always detests ability, and loathes genius; Curzon wanted to prove to himself that at any rate in the moralities he was my superior.

“When he sat down I had to answer him. That was the programme. Of course I had not prepared a speech, had not thought about Curzon, or what he might say, but I got up, Frank, and told the kindliest truth about him, and everyone took it for the bitterest sarcasm, and cheered and cheered me, though what I said was merely the truth. I told how difficult it was for Curzon to work and study at Oxford. Everyone wanted to know him because of his position, because he was going into Parliament, and certain to make a great figure there; and everyone tried to make up to him, but he knew that he must not yield to such seduction, so he sat in his room with a wet towel about his head, and worked and worked without ceasing.

“In the earlier examinations, which demand only memory, he won first honours. But even success could not induce him to relax his efforts; he lived laborious days and took every college examination seriously; he made out dates in red ink, and hung them on his wall, and learnt pages of uninteresting events and put them in blue ink in his memory, and at last came out of the ‘Final Schools’ with second honours. And now, I concluded, ‘this model youth is going into life, and he is certain to treat it seriously, certain to win at any rate second honours in it, and have a great and praiseworthy career.’

“Frank, they roared with laughter, and, to do Curzon justice, at the end he came up to me and apologised, and was charming. Indeed, they all made much of me and we had a great night.

“I remember we talked all the night through, or rather I talked and everyone else listened, for the great principle of the division of labour is beginning to be understood in English Society. The host gives excellent food, excellent wine, excellent cigarettes, and super-excellent coffee, that’s his part, and all the men listen, that’s theirs: while I talk and the stars twinkle their delight.

“Wyndham was there, too; you know George Wyndham, with his beautiful face and fine figure: he is infinitely cleverer than Curzon but he has not Curzon’s push and force, or perhaps, as you say, he is not in such close touch with the average man as Curzon; he was charming to me.

“In the morning we all trooped out to see the dawn, and some of the young ones, wild with youth and high spirits, Curzon of course among the number, stripped off their clothes and rushed down to the lake and began swimming and diving about like a lot of schoolboys. There is a great deal of the schoolboy in all Englishmen, that is what makes them so lovable. When they came out they ran over the grass to dry themselves, and then began playing lawn tennis, just as they were, stark naked, the future rulers of England. I shall never forget the scene. Wilfred Blunt had gone up to his wife’s apartments and had changed into some fantastic pyjamas; suddenly he opened an upper window and came out and perched himself, cross-legged, on the balcony, looking down at the mad game of lawn tennis, for all the world like a sort of pink and green Buddha, while I strolled about with someone, and ordered fresh coffee and talked till the dawn came with silent silver feet lighting up the beautiful greenery of the park. . . .

“Now George Curzon plays king in India: Wyndham is on the way to power, and I’m hiding in shame and poverty here in Paris, an exile and outcast. Do you wonder that I cannot write, Frank? The awful injustice of life maddens me. After all, what have they done in comparison with what I have done?

“Close the eyes of all of us now and fifty years hence, or a hundred years hence, no one will know anything about Curzon or Wyndham or Blunt: whether they lived or died will be a matter of indifference to everyone; but my comedies and my stories and ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ will be known and read by millions, and even my unhappy fate will call forth world-wide sympathy.”

It was all true enough, and good to keep in mind; but even when Oscar spoke of greater men than himself, he took the same attitude: his self-esteem was extraordinary. He did not compare his work with that of others; was not anxious to find his true place, as even Shakespeare was. From the beginning, from youth on, he was convinced that he was a great man and going to do great things. Many of us have the same belief and are just as persuaded, but the belief is not ever present with us as it was with Oscar, moulding all his actions. For instance, I remarked once that his handwriting was unforgettable and characteristic. “I worked at it,” he said, “as a boy; I wanted a distinctive handwriting; it had to be clear and beautiful and peculiar to me. At length I got it but it took time and patience. I always wanted everything about me to be distinctive,” he added, smiling.

He was proud of his physical appearance, inordinately pleased with his great height, vain of it even. “Height gives distinction,” he declared, and once even went so far as to say, “One can’t picture Napoleon as small; one thinks only of his magnificent head and forgets the little podgy figure; it must have been a great nuisance to him: small men have no dignity.”

All this utterly unconscious of the fact that most tall men have no ever present-sense of their height as an advantage. Yet on the whole one agrees with Montaigne that height is the chief beauty of a man: it gives presence.

Oscar never learned anything from criticism; he had a good deal of personal dignity in spite of his amiability, and when one found fault with his work, he would smile vaguely or change the subject as if it didn’t interest him.

Again and again I played on his self-esteem to get him to write; but always met the same answer.

“Oh, Frank, it’s impossible, impossible for me to work under these disgraceful conditions.”

“But you can have better conditions now and lots of money if you’ll begin to work.”

He shook his head despairingly. Again and again I tried, but failed to move him, even when I dangled money before him. I didn’t then know that he was receiving regularly more than £300 a year. I thought he was completely destitute, dependent on such casual help as friends could give him. I have a letter from him about this time asking me for even £540 as if he were in extremest need.

On one of my visits to Paris after discussing his position, I could not help saying to him:

“The only thing that will make you write, Oscar, is absolute, blank poverty. That’s the sharpest spur after all — necessity.”

“You don’t know me,” he replied sharply. “I would kill myself. I can endure to the end; but to be absolutely destitute would show me suicide as the open door.”

Suddenly his depressed manner changed and his whole face lighted up.

“Isn’t it comic, Frank, the way the English talk of the ‘open door,’ while their doors are always locked, and barred, and bolted, even their church doors? Yet it is not hypocrisy in them; they simply cannot see themselves as they are; they have no imagination.”

A long pause, and he went on gravely:

“Suicide, Frank, is always the temptation of the unfortunate, a great temptation.”

“Suicide is the natural end of the world-weary,” I replied; “but you enjoy life intensely. For you to talk of suicide is ridiculous.”

“Do you know that my wife is dead, Frank?”41

“I had heard it,” I said.

“My way back to hope and a new life ends in her grave,” he went on. “Everything I do, Frank, is irrevocable.”

He spoke with a certain grave sincerity.

“The great tragedies of the world are all final and complete; Socrates would not escape death, though Crito opened the prison door for him. I could not avoid prison, though you showed me the way to safety. We are fated to suffer, don’t you think? as an example to humanity —‘an echo and a light unto eternity.’”

“I think it would be finer, instead of taking the punishment lying down, to trample it under your feet, and make it a rung of the ladder.”

“Oh, Frank, you would turn all the tragedies into triumphs, you are a fighter. My life is done.”

“You love life,” I cried, “as much as ever you did; more than anyone I have ever seen.”

“It is true,” he cried, his face lighting up quickly, “more than anyone, Frank. Life delights me. The people passing on the Boulevards, the play of the sunshine in the trees; the noise, the quick movement of the cabs, the costumes of the cochers and sergents-deville; workers and beggars, pimps and prostitutes — all please me to the soul, charm me, and if you would only let me talk instead of bothering me to write I should be quite happy. Why should I write any more? I have done enough for fame.

“I will tell you a story, Frank,” he broke off, and he told me a slight thing about Judas. The little tale was told delightfully, with eloquent inflections of voice and still more eloquent pauses. . . .

“The end of all this is,” I said before going back to London, “that you will not write?”

“No, no, Frank,” he said, “that I cannot write under these conditions. If I had money enough; if I could shake off Paris, and forget those awful rooms of mine and get to the Riviera for the winter and live in some seaside village of the Latins with the blue sea at my feet, and the blue sky above, and God’s sunlight about me and no care for money, then I would write as naturally as a bird sings, because I should be happy and could not help it. . . .

“You write stories taken from the fight of life; you are careless of surroundings, I am a poet and can only sing in the sunshine when I am happy.”

“All right,” I said, snatching at the half-promise. “It is just possible that I may get hold of some money during the next few months, and, if I do, you shall go and winter in the South, and live as you please without care of money. If you can only sing when the cage is beautiful and sunlight floods it, I know the very place for you.”

With this sort of vague understanding we parted for some months.

40 Cfr. Appendix.

41 See Appendix.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02