Oscar Wilde: Commentary (1)

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

File 1
File 2

W. B. Yeats
Franz Blei
Robert H. Sherard
James Joyce
G. B. Shaw
Sigmund Freud
Travers Humphreys
St. John Ervine
Willie Wilde
Allardyce Nicoll
H. G. Wells
Lionel Trilling
Hugh Kenner
Steven Marcus
Patrick Rafroidi
Rupert Croft Crooke
Richard Pine
Richard Ellmann
Ian Scott-Kilvert
W. B. Stanford
Seamus Deane
Declan Kiberd
John Stokes
Neil Sammells
Terry Eagleton
Ian Small
Seamus Heaney
Sos Eltis
Gerry Smyth
Mary C. King
Merlin Holland
Elaine Showalter
J. B. Lyons
Munira H. Mutran
Simon J. James
Simon Callow
Trevor Fisher
Thomas Wright
Fionnula Henderson
Anthony Julius
Colm Tóibín
Peter Crawley
Eileen Battersby
J. W. Foster
Ciaran Murray
Fintan O’Toole

Ambrose Bierce (on Wilde after speaking in San Francisco, March 1882): ‘The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it - says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, and a crank so variously and offensively daft ...’ (See at San Francisco Museum online.


See Colm Tóibín, ‘The Road to Reading Gaol’, in London Review of Books (30 Nov. 2017) - as attached; or see extracts under William Wilde - infra.

W. B. Yeats (I), “Autobiography”, in Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan 1972): ‘In what year did I first meet Wilde? I remember that he seemed to think I was alone in London, for he asked me to eat my Christmas dinner at his house. I was delighted to see his pretty wife and children, and his beautiful house designed by Godwin. He had a white dining-room, the first I had seen, chairs, walls, cushions all white, but in the middle of the table a red cloth table-centre with a red terracotta sstatue and above it a red hanging lamp. I have never seen and shall never meet conversation that could match with his. Perplexed by my own shapelessness, my lack of self-possession and of easy courtesy, I was astonished by this scholar who was a man of [21] the world was so perfect. He had not yet written a successful play and was still a poor man, and I saw nothing of the insolence that perhaps grew upon him later. “Ah, Yeats”, he said that Christmas day - he had been reading to me from the proof sheets of his unpublished Decay of Lying - “we Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures.”’ (p.23; [cont.]

W. B. Yeats (II): ‘Neither then nor later did I care greatly for anything in his writings but the wit - it was the man I admired, who was to show so much courage and who was so loyal to the intellect. “He is, one of our eighteenth-century duellists born in the wrong century”, I would say of him to some young men of letters who decried him, as the fashion was among us; “he would be a good leader in a cavalry charge”. Or then I would say, “He is like Benvenuto Cellini, who, because he found it impossible to equal Michelangelo, turned bravo out of the pride of his art. Wilde is cowed by Swinburne and Browning.” Yet like us all it was from Pater that he had learned, but in him the cadence became over-elaborate and swelling, the diction a little lacked in exactness. In that witty fantasy he had read me, he had derived the pessimism of German philosophy from Hamlet, and when he came to the sentence, “The world has grown sad because a puppet was once melancholy”, I said, “Why have you varied the word; are not sadness and melancholy the same?” And all he could say was that he wanted a full sound for the close of the sentence.’ [Intentions [1891], Methuen 1913, pp.32-33.] (Yeats, Autobiographies, p.23.) [Cont.]

W. B. Yeats (III): ‘He spoke with a deliberate slowness, in drawling speech copied from Walter Pater’s speech, somebody told me, and this had become an artistic convention that gave him greater freedom of language. He could be elaborate when it pleased him, without seeming affectation. “I do not like King Lear, give me The Winter’s Tale - ‘Daffodils, that come before the swallow dares’. What is King Lear but poor life staggering in the fog?” The next moment would come a swift retort, some eddy of spontaneous wit. “I never travel anywhere without Pater’s essay on the Renaissance, that is my golden book, but the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written - it is the very flower of the Decadence.” But, said somebody, [23] “would you not have given us time, Mr Wilde, to read it?” “Oh no, plenty of time afeterwards in either world.”’ (Ibid., pp.21-23.) Cf., Yeats quotes Wilde, ‘“We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.’’’ (Autobiographies, quoted in Tuohy, Yeats: An Illustrated Biography, 1976, p.55.)

W. B. Yeats (IV) - Autobiographies (Macmillan 1955), chiefly pp.130-36: ‘He had just renounced his velveteen …’; Further, ‘[He] perpetually performed a play which was in all things the opposite of all that he had known in childhood and youth. He never put off completely his wonder at opening his eyes every morning on his own beautiful house and in remember that he had dined yesterday with a Duchess’ [q.p.]; ‘I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his life there, with his beautiful wife and his two children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition’ (p.135.)‘ the dinner-table was Wilde’s event and made him the greatest talker of his time, and his plays and dialogues have what merit they possess from being now an imitation, now a record, of his talk’ (p.139.)

W. B. Yeats (V) ‘[Wilde’s personality] was deliberately adopted and therefore a mask - it was the only escape from the hot-faced bargainers and the money-changers.’ (Autobiographies, p.311). ‘Seeing that only the individual soul can attain to its spiritual opposite, a nation in tumult must needs pass to and fro between mechanical opposites, but one hopes always that those opposites may acquire sex and engender. At moments when I have thoughts of the results of politicla subjection upon Ireland I have remembered a story told me by Oscar Wilde, who professed to have [36] found it in a book of magic. “If you carve a Cerberus upon an emerald”, he said, “and put it in the oil of a lamp and carry it into a room where your enemy is, two new heads will come upon their shoulders and all three devour one another.”’ (Autobiographies, pp.360-61.)

W. B. Yeats (VI): ‘[I never before heard a] man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them overnight with labour, and yet all spontaneous’ (quoted in Richard Ellmann, ed., Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, NY: Prentice-Hall 1969, p.9.) To Katharine Tynan, ‘The interesting thing about him [Wilde] is that he is a dandy as well as a philosopher. He is naturally insignificant in looks, but by dint of elaborate training in gesture has turned himself into quite a striking looking person’. Also: ‘perpetually performed a play which was in all things the opposite of all he had known in childhood and early youth’. (All quoted in Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, pp.53-56.

W. B. Yeats (VII): ‘I have known two or three men of philosophical intellect like Wilde and Beardsley who spent their lives in a fantastic protest against a society they could not remake.’ (John B. Frayne, ed., Uncollected Prose, [Vol. I, 1970], p.257.) Also: ‘[Wilde] perpetually performed a play which was in all things the opposite of all he had known in childhood and early youth’. (Q. source - presum. Autobiographies.)

W. B. Yeats (VIII) - Terence de Vere White writes: ‘Walter Starkie remarked that Wilde’s snobbery sprang from his Anglo-Irish characteristics and it can be explained by a remark made by Yeats when he was asked whether Oscar Wilde was a snob. “No, I would not say that; England is a strange country to the Irish. To Wilde the aristocrats of England were like the nobles of Baghdad.”’ (The Anglo-Irish, 1971, p.194; also in Patrick Tuohy, Yeats: An Illustrated Biography, Macmillan 1976 [?pp.55]).

W. B. Yeats (IX) - “The Trembling of the Veil”, [Sect.] II - Wilde’s ‘catastrophe’: ‘[…] A couple of days later I received a letter from Lionel Johnson, denouncing Wilde with great bitterness. He had “a cold scientific intellect”; he got a “sense of triumph and powet, at every dinner-table he dominated, from the the knowledge that he was guilt of that sin which, more than any other possible to man, would turn all those people against him if they but knew.” He wrote in the mood of his pome, To the Destroyer of a Soul, addressed to Wilde, as I have always believed, though I know nothing of the circumstances that made him write it. / I might have known that Wilde’s fantasy had taken some tragic turn, and that he was meditating upon possible disaster, but one too all his words for play - had he not called insincerity “a mere multiplication of personality” or some such words?’ […; 285]. [Cont.]

W. B. Yeats (X) - cont: ‘Yeats goes on to recount Wilde’s story of the Lazarus figure who says to Christ, “Lord, I was dead, and You raised me into life, what else can I do but weep?”’ (p.286.) Also, Wilde’s ‘most characteristic poem’ [in his own estimate]: “Lo! with a little rod / I did but touch the honey of romance - / And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?” (Idem.) Yeats remarks: ‘he had three successful plays running at once; he had been almost poor, and now, his dead full of Flaubert, found himself with ten thousand a year:- “Lord, I was dead, and You raised me into life, what else can I do but weep?” A comedian, he was in the hands of those dramatists who understand nothing but tragedy.’ (p.187.) Yeats records that, in his ‘last conversation’ with Wilde, latter said to him: “Your story in the National Observer, “The Crucifixion of the Outlaw”, is sublime, wonderful, wonderful.”’ (Idem.) [Cont.]

W. B. Yeats (XI) - Yeats goes on to give an account of his visit to the Lady Wilde’s household at Oakley St., where Willie Wilde tells him that they have made the decision to go to prison if necessary. After recounting the cost of this decision, Yeats concludes: ‘I have never doubted, even for an instant, that he made the right decision, and that he owes to that decision half of his renown.’ (p.289.) He ends by reciting the sentence, ‘When the verdict was announced the harlots in the street outside danced upon the pavement.’ (p.291.)

[ top ]

Franz Blei, in Recollections of Oscar Wilde [co-ed. with André Gide, ‘Ernest La Jeunesse’, and Arthur Symons] (Cambridge 1906), remarks: ‘Wilde’s literary residue would be important enough to secure his name to posterity. But his life encountered a fate that took precedence, with its grotesque tragedy, and overshadowed it scurrilously with a blackness that, in England, was as a night of pestilence … one must needs explain this cruelty as a mob outbreak of Saddism [sic] not to be found altogether extraordinary there, where flagellation marks the highest place of erotic culture.’ (q.p.)

Robert H[arborough] Sherard, Oscar Wilde: The Story of An Unhappy Friendship (1908 Edn.): ‘The story of Baudelaire’s life enthralled us even as his poetry enchanted. I owe it altogether to Oscar Wilde that I became familiar with the most wonderful verse which was written in France in the nineteenth century. And though, with ill-masked insincerity, he professed to prefer in Les Fleurs de Mal, the horrrid realisms of “The Carcase”, and “The Murderer’s Wine”, he taught me to admire, with some degree of his own enthusiasm, the organ swell of “La Musique”, the stately sweep of the unknown woman in deep mourning; to love also Diana in gallant equipage. The maladive interest which he showed in Baudelaire’s slow self-destruction, on which an end waited far more appalling than Gerard de Nerval’s short struggle in the strangling rope, may have proceeded from his inwit of tendencies with him which might lead him to the same end.’ (pp.45-46; quoted in Walter A. Nelson, Oscar Wilde’s Allusions and References to Baudelaire: An Essay (Bloms I Lund Tryckeri AB 2003, p.6.)

[See Richard Ellmann’s remarks on the ‘doltish’ Sherard - who did not ‘show any sign of catching on’ - in Oscar Wilde, OUP 1987, p.202-08.]

[ top ]

James Joyce - (I), “Oscar Wilde: The Poet of Salomé” (1909): ‘Here we touch on the pulse of Wilde’s art - sin. He deceived himself into thinking that he was the bearer of good news of neo-paganism to an enslaved people. His own distinctive qualities, the qualities, perhaps, of his race - keenness, generosity, and a sexless intellect - he placed at the service of a theory of beauty which, according to him, was to bring back the golden age and the joy of the world’s youth. But if some truth adheres to his subjective interpretations of Aristotle, to his restless thought that proceeds by sophisms rather than syllogisms, to his assimilations of nature as foreign to his [proud character] as the delinquent is to the humble, at its very base is the truth inherent in the soul of Catholicism: that man cannot reach the divine heart except through that sense of separation and loss called sin.’ (Ellsworth Mason & Ellmann, eds., The Critical Writings, 1964, pp.204-05.)

See comments on Joyce’s model for this sentence in Yeats under Joyce, Quotations - as supra.

See remarks by Stanislaus Joyce: ‘He missed the sense of supreme responsibility which is the sense of sin. I had never been God-intoxicated.’ (My Brother’s Keeper, 1958, p.147 - concluding: ‘He flouted the idea that science could supersede philosophy and considered science ot be rather another kind of false religion, more inhuman and narren than the one he had left. And God had once been a living reality for him’: p.147.)

Cf. Blaise Pascal - Pensées - Sect. VII: Morality and Doctrine (item. 425):

‘What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.’ (p.113; also in Penguin Books edn. 1966, p.75.)

Cf. 437: ‘We desire truth, and find within ourselves only uncertainty. We seek happiness, and find only misery and death. We cannot but desire truth and happiness, and are incapable of certainty or happiness. This desire is left to us, partly to punish us, partly to make us perceive wherefrom we are fallen.’ (p.123.)

—from Pascal’s Pensées, introduced by T. S. Eliot, (NY: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1958) - available at Gutenburg Project - online.

Note that the epithet ‘God-shaped vacuum’ (or - latterly - ‘hole’) is often ascribed to Pascal on the basis of this quotation - possibly by confusion with his pioneering work on vacuums. Pascal experienced the impression of an abyss in his left hand after an accident when his coach was nearly thrown in the Seine.

Another translation:

‘What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and unchangeable object; in other words by God himself.’ (Pensees 10.148)

See also Charles Baudelaire: ‘Pascal avait son gouffre, avec lui se mouvant. / — Hélas! tout est abîme, / — action, désir, rêve, Parole! / Et sur mon poil qui tout droit se relève / Mainte fois de la Peur je sens passer le vent.’ (“Le Gouffre”.) [Available at Fleurs du Mal website - online.]

[ top ]

James Joyce - (II): ‘I have just finished Dorian Grey [sic]. Some chapters are like Huysmans [À rebours, 1884], catalogued atrocities, lists of perfumes and instruments. The central idea is fantastic. Dorian is exquisitely beautiful and becomes awfully wicked: but never ages. His portrait ages. I can imagine the capital which Wilde’s prosecuting counsel made out of certain parts of it. It is not very difficult to read between the lines. Wilde seems to have had some good intentions in writing it - some wish to put himself before the world - but the book is rather crowded with lies and epigrams. If he had had the courage to develop the allusions in the book it might have been better. I suspect he has done this in some privately-printed books. Like his Irish imitator [Oliver St. John Gogarty]: “Quite the reverse is / The style of his verses.”’ (Letter to Stanislaus Joyce [from Rome], 19 August 1906; Letters of James Joyce, NY: Viking Press, 1966, II, ed. Richard Ellmann, p.150; Selected Letters, ed. Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber 1975, p.96; quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 1959; 1965 Edn., p.241 - with comment, ‘Wilde, like most of the authors he now read, was not tough-minded enough.’ (Idem.) Also quoted in Vivian Mercier, ‘John Eglinton as Socrates: A Study of “Scylla and Charybdis”, in James Joyce: An International Perspective, ed. Suheil Bushrui & Bernard Benstock, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1982, n.3, p.81.

James Joyce - (III): In his Piccolo della Sera articles, Joyce also spoke of Wilde as being surrounded by ‘amici indegni [unworthy friends]’ and remarked that he was ‘esule e disonorata [exiled and dishonoured]’ by his country (See Kevin Barry, ed., Occasional, Critical and Political Writing, OUP 2000, 148-51; 233-37.)

James Joyce (IV): Stephen Dedalus responds inwardly to Haines’s comment upon his own paradoxes with ‘Tame essence of Wilde’ (“Telemachus”, Chap. of Ulysses ); and note his allusion in “Ireland, Island of Saints and Sages”: ‘“We Irishmen”, said Oscar Wilde one day to a friend of mine [i.e., W. B. Yeats], “have done nothing, but we are the greatest talkers since the time of the Greeks. But though the Irish are eloquent, a revolution is not made of human breath and compromises.”’ (Critical Writings, NY: Viking Press 1966, p.174.)

[ top ]

G. B. Shaw (I) [on Wilde]: remarks that Wilde ultimately ‘drank himself into impotence as a writer’; ‘the best English-speaking talker of whom we have record in his time; and all witnesses now agree that he performed with all his old brilliancy and pleasantness to the end’; described Lady Wilde and Oscar as examples of ‘pituitary giantism’ (Pref., p.xi, xxxiii, and xlvi; Also, Shaw wrote of Wilde in his preface to John Bull’s Other Island, ‘Ireland is of all countries the most foreign to England […] to the Irishman (and Mr. Wilde is almost as acutely Irish an Irishman as the Iron Duke of Wellington) there is nothing in the world quite so exquisitely comic as an Englishman’s seriousness.’ (Cited in Karl Beckson, ed., Oscar Wilde, The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, Kegan Paul 1970, p.177.) Also, ‘Ireland is of all countries the most foreign to England and to an Irishman (and Mr Wilde is almost as acutely an Irishman as the Iron Duke of Wellington) there is nothing in the world as exquisitely comic as an Englishman’s seriousness.’ (Shaw, 1895; cited in Thomas Kilroy, ‘Anglo-Irish Playwrights and Comic Tradition’, in The Crane Bag, 3 (1979), pp.19-27; rep. in The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, 1982, pp.439-47, p.439.)

G. B. Shaw (II) blamed Bosie [Lord Alfred Douglas] for encouraging Wilde to defend himself in court on the second occasion; further, ‘Society praised him for being idle and then persecuted him savagely for an aberration it would have been better to have left unadvertised, thereby making a hero of him, for it is in the nature of people to worship those who have been made to suffer horribly. If the crucifixion could be proved a myth, and Jesus convicted of dying of old age in comfortable circumstances, Christianity would lose ninety-nine per cent of its devotees.’ (Harris, [1931], p.341; quoted in Eibhear Walshe, ‘Wilde’s Salome and Shaw’s Saint Joan’, in Irish University Review, Summer 1997, p.27.) Note: Yeats entertained a like idea for a story about Jesus, communicated in a letter to Katharine Tynan; and that George Moore made it the subject of his novel The Brook Kerith . Further, when Wilde sent Shaw a copy of De Profundis, the latter wrote, ‘We all dreaded to read it. However, Wilde, like Richard III and Shakespeare, found in himself no pity for himself.’ [Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde, [NY 1930] Dorset 1989, p.342; quoted in Walshe, op. cit., 1997, p.26.). Also, Shaw wrote: ‘Though by culture Wilde was a citizen of all civilised capitals, he was at root a very Irish Irishman, and as such a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland’. (Cited in H. M. Hyde, Oscar Wilde, p.37; cited by Selina Mooney, UUC MA Diss., 1999.)

G. B. Shaw (III) [on The Importance of Being Oscar]: ‘I cannot say that I greatly cared for The Importance of Being Earnest. It amused me of course; but unless a comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening.’ (See K. Beckson, ed., Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970, p.195; cited in Raymond Mullen, UG Essay, UUC 2004.) Further, Shaw characterised Earnest as ‘his [Oscar Wilde’s] first really heartless play’. (‘Memories of Oscar Wilde by George Bernard Shaw’ in Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, NY 1920.)

[ top ]

Sigmund Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’ [1919]: Freud choses Wilde, inter alia, to exemplify his principle that the uncanny in literature is different from the uncanny in life in that it is aesthetically controlled. ‘The imaginative writer has this licence among many others, that he can select his world of representation so that it either coincides with the realities we are familiar with or departs from them in what particulars he pleases. We accept his ruling in {249} every case. In fairy tales, for instance, the world of reality is left behind from the very start, and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted.’ (pp.249-50.) Of Wilde he writes: ‘Even a 'real’ ghost, as in Oscar Wilde’s Canterville Ghost, loses all power of at least arousing gruesome feelings in us as soon as the author begins to amuse himself by being ironical about it and allows liberties to be taken with it. Thus we see how independent emotional effects can be of the actual subject-matter in the world of fiction. In fairy stories feelings of fear - including therefore uncanny feelings - are ruled out altogether. We understand this, and that is why we ignore any opportunities we find in them for developing such feelings.’ (p.252.) Vide ‘The “Uncanny”’, trans. by Alix Strachey [1925], in The Complete Psychological Works, Vol. XVII (1917-19) [Standard Edition; An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works] (London: Hogarth Press 1955 & Edns.), pp.217-56.

Travers Humphreys [Sir], A Book of Trials (London: Heinemann 1953), 243pp., incl. ‘Oscar Wilde’, pp.33-43: the author’s first trial was the Queensberry trial; ‘plea for justification’; homosexual section was No. XI in the Act; on Wilde’s caricature by W. S. Gilbert:‘he was so constituted that he would rather be made to look ridiculous than be ignored’ (p.36); St. John Ervine wrote of Queensberry: ‘A more unholy scoundrel never defiled the earth by his presence on it. The Marquess of Queensberry was either the embodiment of evil who should have been destroyed, or an incurable lunatic who should have been certified and secluded’ (here p.36); Wilde’s riposte to Carson about the former newspaper boy - ‘That is the first I have heard of his connection with literature’ - drew no laughter; Sir Edward Clarke represented Wilde in the Queensberry trial; Charles Gill prosecuted in the first Wilde trial, where Wilde offered ‘a fine outburst in defence of male affection’, resulting in a split jury; sentences 25th May 1895].

Travers Humphreys, Famous and Infamous Trials ( Heinemann 1950): ‘The Trial of Oscar Wilde’, pp.236-44. ‘Wilde had no one to blame but himself; that vanity and exhibitionism which are said to be the peculiarity of those whose moral code is the same as his had led him to adopt a course which could only end in his utter [240] degradation.’ Humphreys adverts to the fatal exchange with Carson that ‘sent Wilde crashing from his pedestal’: Carson: ‘Did you kiss that boy?’ Wilde: ‘Oh no. He was a peculiarly ugly boy’ Carson: ‘[…] is that the reason why you did not kiss him?’ (p.243). Humphreys quotes Wilde: ‘If the charges were true they would be filthy and loathsome’ and remarks that men who live ‘a life of filthy beastliness are not fit to be accepted as a friend’ [… &c.].

[ top ]

St John Ervine, Oscar Wilde: A Present Time Appraisal (London: Allen & Unwin 1951), ‘… despite his brief abasement in De Profundis, [Wilde] seems never to have known that he was, directly in his argument about art for art’s sake, and indirectly in his downfall […] and any hope he might have had of spreading his belief was destroyed when after his release from Reading, he reverted to his sewer life in Paris.’ (p.333.). [See remarks on Marquess of Queensberry, under Travers Humphreys, supra.]

Willie Wilde - a letter to Bram Stoker written at the time of Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency: ‘Bram, my friend, poor Oscar is not as bad a people thought him. He was led astray by his Vanity - &c. conceit, & he was so “got at” that he was weak enough to be guilty - of indiscretions and follies - that is all […] I believe this thing will help to purify him body and soul. Am sure you & Florence must have felt the disgrace of one who cared for you both sincerely.’ (Quoted in Barbara Belford, Bram Stoker, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1996, p.245-46).

Allardyce Nicoll, 19th-c. Drama [ q.d., &c.]: ‘Wilde takes a delight in choosing a theme which may be likely to interest contemporary audiences, but in the moral implications of the theme has simply no interest […] the value of [the play] does not rests in its story but in its dialogue […] finely polished, his prose has a metallic ring lacking in the less refined accents of Jones and Pinero […] Wilde carries us into the realm once dominated by Etherege when gentlemen conversed in epigram and gaily tossed similes to one another in some spiritual battledore and shuttlecock. This style reaches its finest expression in Earnest . No inharmonious thoughts of life and morality intrude here, for the plot is given the same filigree grace as the language itself. Shot through with the best flowers of Wildian epigram, it maintains easily its settled plan and style. […] This is perhaps the only comedy written by Wilde wherein he achieves complete harmony in aim and achievement.’ (p.190ff.)

H. G. Wells, reviewing Earnest on the first night, wrote: ‘It is all very funny, and Mr Oscar Wilde has [decorated] a humour that is Gilbertian with its innumerable spangles of wit that is all his own. We must congratulate him unreservedly on a delightful revival of theatrical satire.’ (See Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson, 1970.)

Lionel Trilling: ‘Wilde saw [that] Victorian men demand that their women epitomise those virtues of softness, domesticity and fidelity which a harsh business ethic had led them to suppress in themselves. In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde showed that such an antithesis quite simply does not work. As often as not, it is the women in the play who are businesslike in making cynical economic calculations about a proposal of marriage, while the men remains steadfastly impractical.’ (Sincerity and Authenticity, [q.d.] p.118-22; cited in Selina Mooney, UUC MA Diss., 1999.)

[ top ]

Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windus 1955): ‘There are plenty of ways of faking vivid prose, when the discipline that makes possible this close engagement of images hasn’t been undergone. Mr. Gilbert has pointed out verbal usages of Oscar Wilde’s that resemble those of Ulysses : “A rose shook in her blood, and shadowed her cheeks. Quick blood parted the petals of: her lips.” When Joyce read The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1906 (oddly enough, in an Italian translation) he saw at once that the felicities were ways of evading, not presenting, the material. Wilde’s wish “to put himself before the world”, Joyce reported in a letter to his brother, caused him to crowd the book with “lies and epigrams” through reluctance to raise the real motifs of the plot to a surface scummed by irridescent prose. “But it is not very difficult to read between the lines.” [Gorman, VI-iii] The fanciest writing in Ulysses is in touch with the subject, with some level of abstraction or of glamour that Dublin has imposed upon banality. [Quotes from “Sirens” episode of Ulysses :] “At each slow satiny heaving bosom’s wave (her heaving embon) red, rose rose slowly, sank red rose. Heartbeats her breath: breath that is life. And all the tiny tiny fernfoils trembled of maidenhair.” U281/271. / This isn’t Wildean sensuous plush display, though it uses, similar techniques. It is Bloom, with the aid of quotations, sentimentalizing a barmaid.’ (p.150; longer extracts in RICORSO Library, “Major Authors” > James Joyce, infra.)

Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians (Somerset: D. R. Hillman & Sons 1964 [reps. 1965, 1966] ‘It makes sense, then, that the form taken by the life of the author resembles the form of as typical piece of pornographic literature. Beginning rather simply, it goes on to gradually increasing elaboration and freedom and to a considerable mechanical complexity of combinations. This development is accompanied by the steady emergence of the forbidden and the systematic violation of prohibitions and taboos’ (p.194; quoted in Danielle Moore, UU Diss., UUC 2012.)

Patrick Rafroidi, ‘The Irish Short Story in English: The Birth of a New Tradition’, in Terence Brown & Rafroidi, eds., The Irish Short Story (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979): ‘[…] Admittedly the son of Speranza seemed to feel no more than a middling attraction for an Ireland which in turn has been slow to claim him. Besides, his most famous attempt at a ghost story, ”The Canterville Ghost”, is a burlesque where he gives in to the fatal temptations that we have noted some other practitioners of the genre also experienced. Yet at the same time critics have often passed over the seriousness of his approach when, from folklore motifs (often common in his native country), he creates his own wonderful universe of kings (“The Young King”), of dwarfs (“The Birthday of the Infanta”), of Giants (“The Selfish Giant”), of mermaids (“The Fisherman and his Soul”), of statues come to life (“The Happy Prince”), of animals with the power of speech (“The Star Child”). These he ultimately uses to reach an apparently contradictory double philosophy of aestheticism and mutual help.’ (p.32.)

Rupert Croft Crooke, quoting letter from Douglas to his mother: ‘Unless you understand that Oscar was an Irishman through and through, you will never get an idea of what his real nature is.’ (Bosie: The Story of Lord Alfred Douglas, 1963, p.93; cited in Selina Mooney, UUC MA Diss., 1999.)

Richard Pine: ‘There were three Oscar Wildes, corresponding to those in Dorian Gray: firstly, the artist contemplating, reproducing, and dominated by, the creature known as beauty - as Wilde conceived himself; secondly, the hedonist, acknowledging neither right nor wrong in his pursuit and propagation of pleasure - thus the world saw Wilde; thirdly the thing of beauty itself, living in a world of Hellenic purity, unconscious of guilt.’ (Oscar Wilde, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1983, p.62.)

[ top ]

Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (Harmondsworth: Penguin Edn. 1988): ‘Wilde now allowed for a “higher ethics” in which artistic freedom and full expression of personality were possible, along with a curious brand of individualistic sympathy or narcissistic socialism […] To these he added another feature of aestheticism, the invasion of forbidden areas of thought and behaviour.’ (p.288.) [On the fin de siècle:] ‘The various labels that have been applied to the age - Aestheticism, Decadence, the Beardsley Period - ought not to conceal the fact that our first association with it is Wilde, refulgent, majestic, ready to fall.’ (ed., Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, NJ: Prentice-Hall 1969, p.1.)

Richard Ellmann (Oscar Wilde, Penguin Edn. 1988): ‘None of Wilde’s plays cost him less effort than the best of them. The Importance of Being Earnest flowed from his pen. According to Ricketts, the plot was originally more complicated, involving double identity and placed in the time of Sheridan [...] The assumed languor pf Algernon and Jack was the well-establised posture of aestheticism since Schlegel’s Lucinde, wehre it is said, with a touch of Wilde’s self-mockery, “Laziness is the one divine fragment of a godlike existence left to man from Paradise.” [...] Salome dwelt upon incest and necrophilia, and displayed them as self-defeated, unished by execution and remorse. But with the critical intellect he could dissolve notions of sin and guilt. He does so in The Importance of Being Earnest, all insouciance where Salome is all incrimination. The philosophy of the last play [Earnest], he told Robert Ross, is “That we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” In The Importance sins accursed in Salome and unnamable in Dorian Gray are transposed into a different key and appear as Algernon’s inordinate and selfish craving for - cucumber sandwiches. [...] The double life which is so serious a matter for Dorian or for the Ideal Husband, becomes Bunburying [...] Wilde even parodied punishinment, by having a solicitor come to take Algernon to Holloway Prison (as Wilde himself was soon to be taken) not for homosexuality, but for running up food bills at the Savoy. [...] Elsewhere, the nation of expiation is [398] mocked; as Cecily observes, “They have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance.” The theme of regeneration, not to mention religious zeal, is parodied in the efforts of Ernest and Jack to be rebaptized. [... A]musing as the surface is, the comic energy springs from the realities that are mocked. / The Importance of Being Earnest constructs its wonderful parapet over the abyss of the author’s disquietude and apprehension. By a desperate stratagem Wilde keeps the melancholy of the world at a distance. Deception is everywhere, cancelled by spontaneity and humour. Erotic passions compete with family ambition, innocence longs for experience, and experience longs for innocence. Tears are taboo. Wilde masked his cares with the play’s insouciance, by a miracle of control. A friend said it should be like a piece of mosaic, “No”, Wilde said, “it must go like a pistol shot.”’ (1987 Edn., pp.398-99; all quoted by Raymond Mullen, UG Essay, UUC 2003.)

[ top ]

Ian Scott-Kilvert, ed., British Writers [for British Council], Vol. V (NY: Scribners 1982), Lady Windermere’s Fan, a blackmailing divorcee driven to self-sacrifice by maternal love; The Ideal Husband, the most strongly plotted of her earlier works, deals with political corruption, public and private honour, blackmail, repentance, and forgiveness; The Importance of Being Earnest, slender but deftly worked plot concerns two fashionable young gentlemen, John Worthing (Jack) and Algernon Moncrieff, and their eventually successful courtship of Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, with Gwendolen’s mother Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, and Canon Chasuble.

W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (1984): quotes: ‘“I got my love for the Greek ideal and my knowledge of the language at Trinity from Mahaffy and [R. Y.] Tyrrell”; Wilde helped Mahaffy with his Social Life in Greece from Homer to Meander (1874) and was thanked in the introduction for “having made improvements and corrections all through the book”; Mahaffy corrected his aesthetic divagation towards Catholicism, catching up with Wilde on a journey to Rome, apparently funded by Jesuits, and deflecting him to Greece. Stanford discusses the struggle of Christian and Hellenic sentiment in Wilde’s poetry. His neo-Hellenism is vividly presented in longer poems such as The Garden of Eros, The New Helen [here it is a Trojan dame instead of the Blessed Virgin who is ‘not born as common women are’, in a poem deliberately placed at the end of his Rosa Mystica to emphasise his rejection of Christian mysticism], The Burden of Itys, Carmides, Panthea, and The Sphinx. Others, include Humanitad. In The Decay of the Art of Lying (1891), he paradoxically argues that the reality which underlay the Greek ideal was just as ordinary as contemporaries, ‘Do you believe that the Athenian women were like the stately figures of the Parthenon frieze, or like the marvellous goddess who sat in the triangular pediments of the same building [….] You will find that the Athenian ladies laced tightly, wore high-heeled shoes, dyed their hair yellow, painted and rouged their faces, and were exactly like any silly fashionable or fallen creature of their own day.’ Wilde scathingly reviewed Mahaffy’s Greek Life and Thought (1877), charging the author with ‘bias, provincialism, and lack of ‘reasonableness, moderation, style and charm.’ (Stanford, pp.238-39). Bibl., V[yvyan] Holland (London 1954); H. Pearson (London 1946), and Brazol (NY 1938); also A. Ojala, ‘Aestheticism and Oscar Wilde’, in Annales Academiae Scientiae Fennicae (Helsinki), B 90, 2 and 93, 2 (1954 and 1955); B. Fehr, Studien zu Oscar Wilde’s Gedichten (Berlin 1918); for classical references, see Richard Ellmann, The Artist as Critic (NY 1968) [notes, 245].

Seamus Deane, Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea [Field Day Pamphlet, No. 4] (Derry: Field Day 1984), ‘Shaw and Wilde denied the subversive force of their proto-socialism by expressing it as cosmopolitan wit, the recourse of the social or intellectual dandy who makes [8] such a fetish of taking nothing seriously that he ceases to be taken seriously himself.’ (p.8-9.)

[ back ]
[ top ]
[ next ]