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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Manning Booker
 
OSCAR FINGALL O’FLAHERTIE WILLS WILDE was born in Dublin. October 16th, 1854. His parents were distinguished people—the father, knighted for eminence in surgery; the mother, widely admired for her poetical talent and for personal gifts that attracted to her salon many Irish patriots and literati.  1
  The hall-marks of Wilde’s character can be discerned in the schoolboy and in the university student. In 1864 he began his education, at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen. He revealed a gentle, kind, and genial nature, a gift for story-telling, and an aptitude for Greek, in which he won the exhibition medal. He went from school to Trinity College, Dublin. There Greek and his teachers in it, Mahaffy and Tyrell, were his sole stimulus. In 1874 he won the gold medal for Greek and a classical scholarship, tenable for five years. This decided his father to send him to Oxford, a decision that Wilde ranks with his sentence to prison as one of the two turning points in his career.  2
  It was at Oxford—and on a trip from there to Greece with Mahaffy—that the reaction of his sensuous temperament to Greek thought and art confirmed in him a Pagan view of life. In this view Christianity and conventional ethics found no room. “The worship of sorrow,” he said, “must give place to the worship of the beautiful.” It was at Oxford that this refined sensuousness united with the teachings of Ruskin and Pater and with the Pre-Raphaelite spirit then abroad to bear as fruit an æstheticism that became reflected in everything about Wilde, from his knee-breeches and his blue china—which he hoped he could “live up to”—to his gospel of individual perfection. It was at Oxford that the desire to write stirred in him and was flattered by the award of the Newdigate prize to his poem ‘Ravenna’ (1878). It was at Oxford, most probably, that he first experimented in the vice destined to be his ruin.  3
  In the beginning, bankruptcy dogged the London career of this young Sybarite, who said, “Give me the luxuries, and anyone can have the necessaries.” His brother Willie, editor of a society sheet called The World, puffed him assiduously; and Oscar saw to it that there was no lack of material. “Nothing succeeds like excess” was the keynote of his progress. Punch, organ of the middle classes, swelled his notoriety by persistent lampooning. London society enjoyed his wit, his urbanity, his enthusiasm, even his æstheticism; and it paid him in the same coin—with invitations. Aroused by his doings and his sayings and his wearings, it bought his first book of verse, ‘Poems’ (1881), in quantities out of all proportions to their real value. For his verses were largely imitative. Dante, Marlowe, Milton, and Keats; and many living poets—Browning, Arnold, Swinburne, Morris, and Rossetti—are represented in this gallery of youthful admirations. Wilde’s activities soon gained him entrance into the inner circles of literature and the theatre. Browning, Arnold, Swinburne, Meredith, and Hardy he came to know personally.  4
  The proceeds from his ‘Poems’ spent, Wilde undertook a lecturing tour through America, in 1881. He took himself seriously as the apostle of the æsthetic movement—a movement that he had joined rather late for an apostle,—appearing in costume and proclaiming that he came “to show the rich what beautiful things they might enjoy and the poor what beautiful things they might create.” He opened his tour by stating to the customs-officer that he had nothing to declare save his genius. His lectures—‘The English Renaissance of Art,’ ‘House Decoration,’ and ‘Art and the Handicraftsman’—consisted of paraphrases of Arnold and Pater and scraps from his latest teacher, Whistler. The £1,200 netted from this venture were exhausted by two more trips to America and as many to Paris. The former were undertaken with a view to staging the youthful plays ‘The Duchess of Padua’ (1883) and ‘Vera’ (1882). Only ‘Vera’ ever saw the boards, and then but to be nipped by a frost. Wilde was driven to lecturing again,—this time in the British Isles.  5
  With creditors at the door, Wilde married, in 1884, Constance Mary Lloyd, daughter of a Dublin Q. C. The sequence of events in Wilde’s life resembles that of a Shakespearian drama. The decade following his marriage marks the rapid advance to the climax. It is filled with the clash of two motives,—the growth of his literary power, and the growth of his vice. By 1886—aside from his hack-work as editor of The Woman’s World—he had produced nothing except an essay, ‘Shakespeare and Stage Costume’; but his conversation became literature,—brilliant and quickening, revealing an agile and tireless mind, a fine memory, and the ripening of Wilde’s most immortal quality—his humor. Conversation was Wilde’s method of composition. The things he talked, he later refined and incorporated in his writings. This gave them often the effect of mosaics. But what mosaics!  6
  Wilde’s output during the years 1887 and 1888 consisted of short stories and tales. Those grouped in the collection ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories’ (1891) do not particularly enhance his fame; but the first tale of the collection ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ (1888) is perhaps his most beautiful short narrative. It is conceived in the manner of Hans Andersen, but executed in a way that leaves the unmistakable imprint of the author’s genius upon it. The years 1889 and 1890 saw Wilde’s original contributions to criticism. Of the three essays referred to (published together in ‘Intentions,’ 1891), ‘The Decay of Lying,’ ‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison’ (both in 1889), and ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1890), the last is the most brilliantly written; and in its conception of criticism as a creative art, it has the most significant and representative idea. Unfortunately 1889 saw also the publication of an essay in story form, ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,’ in which Wilde interpreted Shakespeare’s sonnets as revealing the same form of perverse sexuality that rumor attributed to Wilde himself. The intimation, “You condemn me; why not condemn Shakespeare?” had the effect of a challenge to the public. Wilde was calling the mob about the foot of his gibbet to see him hanged. Meanwhile the attacks of Punch redoubled; and there had appeared in ‘The Green Carnation,’ by Hichens, a satirical portrait of Wilde, in which were thinly veiled allusions to his vice. Men were talking; but Wilde seemed to care not what they talked, so long as they talked.  7
  Despite his stories and essays, Wilde’s literary reputation was on the wane. In 1891 it flared up again in the collection of tales similar to ‘The Happy Prince’ entitled ‘A House of Pomegranates,’ the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ and the play ‘Salomé.’ The novel was intended to be a psychological study; but Wilde’s lack of interest in character analysis dulls its edge. Unhappily certain of its contents made it a sharp weapon in the hands of Wilde’s detractors. As ‘Salomé’ was written in French, comparatively few read it; but the reports of it and the censor’s prohibiting its production in London quickened the public’s ominous unrest. This play, censored in Britain, has held the continental stage since its first production in Berlin, in 1901. Dramatic it unquestionably is, and the most difficult problems are met with an amazing deftness and certainty of taste. What stirred the deeps of the British censor’s morality was the impropriety of presenting Salomé slaking her passion on the dead lips of John the Baptist.  8
  The following year Wilde found a new outlet for his talents, and the field was one in which the most sensitive virtue could openly follow him. The comedy of society found in him a most brilliant revival. From 1892 to 1895, it seemed as though the spirits of Congreve and Sheridan hovered over the London stage. The reception accorded ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ (1892) was so immediate and unmistakable that hitherto hostile critics did not dissent. ‘A Woman of No Importance’ followed in 1893, and Wilde’s audience was assured to him. In 1895 London witnessed the production of ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and the unusual spectacle of three plays by the same author running at the same time. The first three of these plays have undoubted blemishes. Accident complicates the plots; sentiment, forced up by Wilde to catch his audience, strikes a discordant note; the cement is not entirely removed from the mosaics of the dialogue. But the farcical nature of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ released Wilde from the necessity of a reasonable motivation. Sure of an audience, he cast sentiment to the winds; its place is taken by humor borne along on the wings of a spirit of joyous fun.  9
  The year 1895, then, marks the height of Wilde’s literary career. It marks also his public ruin. Four years previously he had formed an intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas. The young nobleman’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, made fruitless efforts to break it up. He followed up threats of personal violence with public abuse. When he left a defamatory card at a club, Wilde resolved to bring suit for libel. This notorious suit—begun April 4th, 1895—had to be withdrawn, and the Crown instituted criminal proceedings against Wilde. On May 25th he was sentenced to two years of hard labor.  10
  The record of Wilde’s mental life in prison is preserved in ‘De Profundis’, written during the last months of his term (partially published, 1905). His sufferings showed two interesting results: he retained intact his gentleness, geniality, and freedom from bitterness; he came to see a spiritual value in sorrow and pity, reversing his Pagan convictions concerning them and welcoming them as renovating influences. ‘De Profundis’ is his finest written prose, approaching most nearly in rhythm and naturalness the prose of the conversations recorded by his biographers. Through it one can enter the new chambers of the soul that suffering had unlocked. It is the main warrant for the belief that if Wilde could have held steadfastly the vision he had caught, he would have attained to loftier heights in his art.  11
  Old enterprises remained to be completed; new ones were taking form. But only the remarkable ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was to be achieved. Wilde’s better self did not long maintain control over old habits; and at Naples and later at Paris he gave way to vice and dissipation. His writing ceased; as he said of himself, he could never afterward face his own soul. From then on, Wilde’s life, spent chiefly in Paris, was one of dependence and even squalor. He employed his brilliant mental powers in begging the wherewithal for intermittent luxuries. His physical decline progressed rapidly, and he was ravaged by disease.  12
  When Wilde was imprisoned, certain loyal men rallied to him. Their behavior lends grace to a life’s close that is sustained above the meanest and most sordid level only by the dignity of a great catastrophe, for the wreck of genius is such. The closing months present the cinema change characteristic of his life: the brilliant fades back into the horrible; the horrible disperses the brilliant. Unconquered by dependence, squalor, and disease, Wilde’s joyous humor flashed even as he fell. On one of the last drives in Paris, he asked for champagne, remarking that he was dying as he had lived, “beyond his means.” He died November 30th, 1900. He was buried in the Cemetery of Bagneux. In 1909 his remains were removed to Père Lachaise. The final dissolution of the prophet who proclaimed that the worship of sorrow must give place to the worship of the beautiful was sudden and revolting—the last word of Life’s grim commentary on his gospel.  13
 
  The best edition of Wilde is Methuen’s, London, 1908. It is not complete. There are biographies of him by R. H. Sherard, ‘The Life of Oscar Wilde,’ London, 1906; by L. C. Ingleby, ‘Oscar Wilde,’ London, 1907; and by Frank Harris, ‘Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions’ (containing the unpublished portion of ‘De Profundis’), New York, 1916. Supplementary to these are Lord Alfred Douglas’s ‘Oscar Wilde and Myself,’ London, 1914; Sherard’s ‘The Real Oscar Wilde,’ London, undated; and Percival Pollard’s ‘Recollections of Oscar Wilde’ (by Ernest La Jeunesse, André Gide, and Franz Blei), Boston, 1906. Gide is translated by Stuart Mason, ‘Oscar Wilde: A Study,’ Oxford, 1905, who adds a valuable bibliography. Devoted to criticism is Arthur Ransome’s ‘Oscar Wilde: a Critical Study,’ New York, 1912.  14
 
 
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