The Harlot’s House 48
When Oscar Wilde died in 1900, Richard Aldington, the original editor of this volume, was a schoolboy; yet a number of his literary cronies of later years made him feel almost as if he were a younger member of Wilde’s London circle, for they were its survivors, some of them long self-exiled after the debacle of the Wilde trials in 1895.
Although Wilde was only forty-six at his death, his friend Reggie Turner (later an Aldington companion) at his side in a sleazy Paris hotel, he was not cut off at the height of his powers. Only “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” with its eerie echoes of “The Ancient Mariner,” is a post-prison literary effort. Shattered physically and emotionally by his trials and imprisonment — to both of which are owed his self-indulgent yet moving confession, De Profundis — he put his compulsion to write into the many letters of his last years, which come alive even more poignantly when we realize that their gaiety and charm are largely artificial, his final works of fiction. “We all dreaded to read De Profundis,” Bernard Shaw wrote of the expurgated version available in the first decade of the new century; “our instinct was to stop our ears, or run away from the wail of a broken, though by no means contrite, heart. But we were throwing away our pity. De Profundis was profundis indeed: Wilde was too good a dramatist to throw away so powerful an effect; but none the less it was de profundis in excelsis. There was more laughter between the lines of that book than in a thousand farces by men of no genius.”
Wilde reached the heights and depths of his reputation in the same year, 1895. A minor poet and critic in the 1880s — more a public personality than an established man of letters — he was recognized as an eminent writer when, in 1890, he published his finest work of criticism, “The Critic as Artist,” and the notorious novel of the English Decadence, The Picture of Dorian Gray. After that his output was so prolific as to seem the work of a committee, yet it was all characteristically Wildean, ornamented by the perverse precision of the inverted epigram. No one, not even Jimmy Whistler of the barbed retort, was as quotable in the nineties as was Oscar.
Aside from two wooden works of the eighties, Wilde’s playwriting career was compressed into four comedies and the mannered tragedy of Salomé, all written in the three years before his fall. That they earned a great deal of money was the reason Wilde turned to the stage. Playwriting was no more his forte than was fiction or poetry or criticism. His plots were often derivative and his characterization minimal, the comedies prospering because of Wilde’s flair for masking the absurd in fashionable life with audience-pleasing repartee. He had created, W. H. Auden would write, “a verbal universe in which the characters are determined by the kind of things they say, and the plot is nothing but a succession of opportunities to say them.” Wilde was, Max Beerbohm declared, “a lord of language,” and Shaw, who found Wilde’s outlook bleak and inhumane, nevertheless observed in his review of An Ideal Husband that he was skeptical of critics who complained that Wildean epigrams could be “turned out by the score.” “As far as I can ascertain,” Shaw scoffed, “I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will. The fact that his plays, though apparently lucrative, remain unique under these circumstances, says much for the self-denial of our scribes. In a certain sense Mr Wilde is to me our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.”
Wilde, however, was playing a dangerous game. The lucrative drama was financing a double life. His letters from his days at Oxford and his early life in London reveal his familiarity with the homosexual milieu which, despite his apparent love match of a marriage in 1885, would begin to dominate his days as well as his nights in the later 1880s. By 1894 what had been only gossip materialized in print in such satires as Robert Hichens’s The Green Carnation, where Esmé Amarinth, an oily epigrammatist indistinguishable from Oscar Wilde, preaches perverse philosophies to schoolchildren, and has a young companion, Lord Reggie, who despite the name of another Wilde companion is indistinguishable from Lord Alfred Douglas. Openly, Oscar would admit to performing his life, once complimenting actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who had played the lead in a Wilde comedy, “Ah, every day dear Herbert becomes de plus en plus Oscarisé — it is a wonderful case of Nature imitating art.”
Not the first to perceive that art both depends upon yet denies life, Wilde nonetheless elevated that irony into a narcissism which was an ethic as much as a pose and was the controlling image of Dorian Gray. The end, for Dorian Gray as well as Wilde, was inevitable. Aldington points to the dandy side of Disraeli as influence upon Wilde, and it is Disraeli’s jaded Alfred Mountchesney who opens Sybil with a sigh, as he discards his ripe, almost untasted, peach, “Nothing does me any good. I should be quite content if something could do me harm.” From there to the writing of De Profundis in his cell at Reading Gaol would take Wilde only a few years.
For reasons related to his subterranean life yet capable of rationalization from a critical point of view, Wilde seemed almost to anticipate prison, if not actually to aspire toward it. While he lived and loved as if he could evade the morals laws forever, he knew better and prepared his case for himself by equating courageous wrongdoing with the artist’s restless search for enrichment of experience. What one shouldn’t do nevertheless had to be done, in order to explore new possibilities in self-consciousness — a concept Algernon applies to literature in The Importance of Being Earnest: “Oh! it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends upon what one shouldn’t read.” What one shouldn’t do might be enforced by prison, regulations, Wilde wrote more than six years before his own days in the dock, but prison nonetheless could have an “admirable effect,” while in no way limiting or constraining “the freedom of a man’s soul.” Approvingly, he quoted Wilfrid Blunt as reporting after his own experience that prison, “like a sickness or a spiritual retreat… purifies and ennobles; and the soul emerges from it stronger and more self-contained.” The Importance of Being Earnest was only in its second month at the St James’s Theatre when its author had the opportunity forced upon him, and in De Profundis, written in his last months of incarceration, he applied his experience to his theories.
“Everything that is realised is right,” Wilde insisted in his apologia, thus continuing to equate sin — artistically mastered — with truth. “The books that the world calls immoral books,” he had written in Dorian Gray, “are books that show the world its own shame.” In The Soul of Man Under Socialism he explained, “When the public say a work of art is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true.” It was a paradox he had to believe in: it explained himself. It also explained his art “Romantic art,” he wrote in defending Dorian Gray, “deals with the exception and the individual. Good people, belonging as they do to the normal, and so, commonplace, type are artistically uninteresting. Bad people are, from the point of view of art, fascinating studies. They represent colour, variety and strangeness. Good people exasperate one's reason; bad people stir one's imagination.” The sinister double life of Dorian Gray was more relevant to the author’s own condition than the reading public of 1890 knew. On the surface Wilde was in the novel no more than creatively consistent with his own esthetic theories. Yet it was through more than critical uniformity that Wilde’s essays, stories, and plays talked of masks and of lying, and pivoted cleverly upon deception and double lives. “It is proper,” Wilde wrote, intending perhaps only a half-truth, “that limitation should be placed on action. It is not proper that limitation should be placed on art. To art belong all things that are and all things that are not.”
The Wildean ideal was an artist who “has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter.” The proposed public for that ideal was less realizable — one which would understand that the “sphere of art and the sphere of ethics” were “absolutely distinct and separate.” It was to the confusion between ethics and art, he explained, “that we owe the appearance of Mrs. Grundy, that amusing old lady who represents the only original form of humour that the middle classes of this country have been able to produce.”
Grundyism, Wilde understood, was not entirely a laughing matter, for it implied some de facto censorship over imaginative literature. Literature possessed certain rights and freedoms inherent in art, he insisted. “A Government might just as well try to teach painters how to paint, or sculptors how to model, as attempt to interfere with the style, treatment and subject matter of the literary artist.” Censorship “would degrade literature far more than any didactic or so-called immoral book could possibly do.” The problem was that although Wilde was right, he was evading the equally crucial question as to whether the immoral literary artist (in his capacity not as artist, but as human being) degraded literature. And it remains to the confusion between the two inescapable questions that we owe some skepticism about Wilde. Is it insolent to be socially irresponsible in one’s art, or is it irresponsible to art for one to be socially responsible? In lines which echo Wilde, Joe Orton, a playwright of the next century who shared Wilde’s gift for farce as well as his sexual orientation, wrote, “In a world run by fools the writer can only chronicle the doings of fools or their victims. And because the world is a cruel and heartless place, he will be accused of cruelty and heartlessness. If he thinks that the world is not only cruel and heartless but funny as well, he has given his critics an extra brickbat to fling and will be accused of not taking his subject seriously. But laughter is a serious business and comedy a weapon more dangerous than tragedy. Which is why tyrants treat it with caution. The actual material of tragedy is equally viable as comedy — unless you happen to be writing in English, when the question of taste occurs. The English are the most tasteless nation on earth, which is why they set such store by it.”
In Oscar’s heyday, the young Max Beerbohm, in his first published essay (he was still at Merton College, Oxford) had already recognized the problem readers and audiences would always have to confront in a Wildean work. “Apart from the truth that the excellence of a work lies not in the possession of any ulterior motive or original conviction of its author, but in the aspect of the work itself,” Max wrote, “to say that Mr. Wilde is not in earnest is manifestly false. No writer has pleaded with greater zeal and consistency for the preference of Aesthetics to Ethics ... [yet] it is not by his works alone that we must judge him, but by the personality of which his works are a part.” Wilde could have agreed with the dangerously accurate and prophetic judgment. “I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction,” he afterwards wrote (from prison) to Douglas in De Profundis. But he might have added, as was his method, a diversionary paradox. “Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay,” he had already explained in The Truth of Masks. “There is much with which I entirely disagree…. For in Art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A truth in art is that whose contradiction is also true.”
Wilde sought to bring art into harmony with his life, and his life into harmony with art. It is a paradox entirely consistent with his life that his art has proved to be as enduring as it is entertaining. But like his John Worthing (who was Ernest in the country), Wilde might have confessed his surprise “to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”
Oscar Wilde was twenty when he went up to Oxford in 1874, and he already had a small but deserved reputation as a young classical scholar of great promise. Indeed, his whole academic career was a series of successes, which could only come from hard work and certain gifts which, as always in the young, might or might not develop into something notable. Wilde had spent three years at Trinity College, Dublin, where he had been a Queen’s Scholar and a University Scholar, and had come out high in classics “Honours.” He had won a gold medal with an essay on the extant fragments of Greek Comic Dramatists. And he was a favourite pupil of Mahaffy, who acknowledged Wilde’s assistance in the preface to his Social Life in Greece.
The “Greek sympathy,” as Peacock calls the freemasonry of classical scholars, would naturally mean that the Magdalen dons watched the progress of the clever young Irishman discreetly but with interest. Would he keep up his intellectual life or would he waste his time in any of the half hundred ways evolved by undergraduates to frustrate all efforts to educate them? Wilde’s first answer to that was to win a “demyship” worth £95 a year for five years.
In those days Jowett was professor of Greek and Master of Balliol; Matthew Arnold had only recently ceased to lecture as professor of Poetry; Ruskin, as Slade professor, was exerting all his eloquence and knowledge of medieval art to civilize the young barbarians, though rapidly approaching the nervous and mental breakdown of 1878. These were powerful influences, but more delightful—because less official or entirely unofficial—were the English Romantic poets, the still living Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, that amusing and gifted Mr. Whistler, and the retiring Brazenose don who had published some fascinating essays on the Italian Renaissance which Jowett had frowned upon—Walter Pater. All this was “very heaven” to a sensitive, intelligent boy in the city of dreaming spires, and old grey colleges, and brilliant green lawns, with one of those pretty little brooks the English call a river. Moreover chance had given Oscar Wilde the best undergraduate’s rooms in Magdalen, which he furnished with blue china and engravings of female nudes, expressing the pious hope that he might live up to the blue china.
Of course, he was “ragged” by the “hearties.” He was an aesthete and a poet. It was said that at Oxford he read nothing but the English poets—if so, Mahaffy had grounded him wonderfully, for he took a First in Moderations, and then spent his vacations travelling with Mahaffy in Italy and Greece, where he saw the German archaeologists recover the Hermes of Praxiteles. His Hellenic zeal made him late in coining up next term, and the dons fined him heavily; but returned the money later when Wilde finished his Oxford career in a blaze of academic triumph, winning a First Class in Literae Humamores and the Newdigate Prize with his poem “Ravenna.”
When Oscar Wilde went down from Oxford for the last time, he had spent eight of his most impressionable years at universities. For good and for ill these years left their permanent mark on him. For one thing, his series of academic triumphs had made success necessary to him. In a world which is at best indifferent to and frequently hostile to the intellectual and aesthetic way of life, Wilde expected to be surrounded by admiring sympathizers; and as he was gifted with uncommon impudence and wit he made an enemy with every mot. He wanted life always to be as it had been at Oxford, when his father paid the bills, and the university protected him from the world, and poured out for him the knowledge and beauty salvaged from the ages, and he was free to choose always what was lovely and refined and exquisite, and to reject all that was sordid and harsh and vile. He wanted to eat of all the fruits in the garden of life, he told a friend as they strolled along Magdalen Walk, but only those in the sunny side of the garden. He had taken too literally and was to apply too sensually, too coarsely, too selfishly Pater’s wonderful words:
“The service of philosophy, or speculative culture, towards the human spirit is to rouse, to startle it into sharp and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us,—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?”
It was Wilde’s error to want always to enjoy the ecstasy without paying the price beforehand in labour, in self-discipline, in restraint. He paid the immensely accumulated price afterwards.
Yet when Oscar Wilde extravagantly took a first-class ticket from Oxford to London and treated himself to an armful of new books and periodicals to beguile that brief journey, he had already received warnings if he had not been too self-absorbed to notice them. After a life of lavish expenditure Sir William Wilde had suddenly died, leaving only £7000 to his widow and a small income to Oscar. The natural thing in such circumstances would have been for the Magdalen fellows to elect so brilliant a young graduate to a probationary fellowship, with the chance of a life income so long as he behaved himself and remained unmarried. The Magdalen dons ominously did nothing. With Wilde’s academic record, this was a significant snub. Perhaps he had offended the dons; more likely, in their quiet way, they saw already the type he was and did not want him.
Young Wilde had “immeasurable ambitions”—at least, he said he had. What he actually achieved when he had at last earned enough money to cut a figure in the great world, we shall see. He had been trained for no profession, and if he had been trained he would not have practised successfully—like his fellow-countryman, Tom Moore, he was a born social entertainer and also a born writer. Indeed it is the greatest mistake to rate Wilde too low as a writer. If he had not been an excellent writer he would now be as nearly forgotten as those heroes of resounding British scandals, Charles Parnell and Charles Dilke.
At this time Wilde had little enough to offer a publisher. He had his “Rise of Historical Criticism,” which would probably have won him another Oxford prize if the dons hadn’t thought he had too many already. He had begun to write (with unconscious prescience) a play about Russian revolutionaries. And be was completing a volume of poems.
For a good many years now it bas been the custom to treat Wilde’s poems with contempt—he was a plagiarist, a précieux, and be bad not read Paul Eluard. Let it be remembered that much criticism of poetry is only a long grinding of intellectual axes, a strenuous form of competition for an almost non-existent market. Of course Wilde’s poems have faults! I even believe I could myself point out a few which have been overlooked by swift-eyed censors. For example, in “The Burden of Itys,” which is a kind of expanded “Ode to a Nightingale” loaded with aesthetic images, we suddenly trip over a prosaic almost eighteenth-century line:
“The harmless rabbit gambols with its young ...” Yet the poem is filled with beautiful allusions and suggestions, some of which belong to the author. It must be remembered that Wilde came at the end of the last great period of English poetry. Within less than a century there had been Blake, Burns, Wordsworth, Scott, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Meredith, Rossetti, William Morris, Swinburne, and hosts of minor poets. It was impossible for a young man, loving poetry as Wilde did, to write poems without reproducing what he had admired so intensely. When, in maturity, he wrote the “Ballad of Reading Gaol” out of the bitter intensity of his own experience, he had all the originality of the fait divers in his lines.
In spite of their heavy debts to Milton, Keats, Tennyson, Rossetti, and Arnold (not to mention others), these early poems have vitality and charm. You can take every one of them to pieces, and show their derivations, yet they are readable in a way which more approved specimens of the art are not. They make the Romantic poetry of England accessible to young readers who are not yet competent to appreciate the greater men. They represent the moment when Romanticism became classical—like the Parnassians in France—but a classicism of joyous reminiscence, not of plodding obedience to rule and precept. They should be taken in the spirit of the Latin poetry of the Renaissance, when the subtle flavours of innumerable reminiscences of earlier writers were deliberately enjoyed, when every line and phrase was drenched in older poetry, yet there was something new about it all, some expression of the writer’s own personality. What an interesting kinship there is between Wilde’s methods and those of Poliziano in such a poem as that on violets, which begins:
Molles o violate, veneris munuscula nostrae,
Dulce quibus tanti pignus amoris inest,
Quae vos quae genuit tellus? quo nectare odoras
Sparserunt zephyri mollis et aura comas?
and the exquisite Italian Stanze which clearly inspired Botticelli. Both poets work for and achieve similar effects.
The most ambitious of Wilde’s aesthetic poems are those nominally on Hellenic themes (“The Garden of Eros,” “The Burden of Itys,” “Charmides,” “Panthea,” “Humanitad”) and all suffer from a curiously inaesthetic stanza, made up of a quatrain of alternately rhymed pentameters followed by a pentameter rhyming with a “fourteener.” It is clumsy, and the extra syllables are nearly always either a “cheville” (a bit of padding) or compel an awkward run-over to the next stanza. An amusing fact is that this young man, who was soon to repudiate poor Nature with such witty insolence, shows in these poems a considerable knowledge and love of picturesque Nature—not indeed of the Greece which is his theme but of the lush Thames Valley. His observation was, however, not that of Wordsworth, still less of Richard Jeffries, for he makes the tench (a bottom-feeding pond fish) “leap at the dragon-fly,” an insect no fish would attempt. Wilde’s love of flowers was often laughed at and probably still is:
Soon will the musk carnation break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell.
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar …
That piece of aestheticism, however, is not by Wilde, but by one of his Masters, the austere Matthew Arnold.
Later, after Wilde went to live in France, he added to his verse something from Gautier and the Verlaine of Eaux-Fortes. “The Sphinx,” which some people prefer because it is un-Hellenic and un-English, comes straight out of Flaubert’s Tentation de Saint Antoine, suggested by the marvellous dialogue of the Sphinx and the Chimaera. Wilde may have got later suggestions for this poem from Huysmans’s A Rebours (1884), but he knew French well enough to go direct to Flaubert, and indeed the technique of strange erudition made poetic is entirely Flaubertian. His last work in verse, the “Ballad,” is a repudiation of his whole artistic creed—it is contemporary, realistic, and sordid in theme, and is full of philanthropic propaganda. The butterfly had certainly been broken on the treadmill.
Although in 1878-80 Wilde could show only a few publications in periodicals, his personality was already attracting attention, and was extremely welcome to the little satirists of Punch longing to curry favour with the middle classes by holding art up to ridicule. They hadn’t much success with such recluses and haters of newspaper notoriety as Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Morris, Pater, and indeed all the older generation of artists and poets. (Tennyson had a horror of publicity, and Arnold a genuine contempt for it). But Wilde was just what the satirists were looking for—a seemingly obvious aesthetic charlatan. Gilbert’s Bunthorne, originally meant for Pater, was transferred hastily to Wilde.
Even before the newspapers got hold of him, the reputation made by Wilde’s personality and aesthetic talk was in excess of his achievements. It is said that an ardent female disciple holding forth about him was interrupted by a sweet old lady with: “But what has Mr. Wilde done, dear? Is he a soldier?” Perhaps the old lady wasn't such a fool as the indignant disciple assumed. It is usually taken for granted that Wilde's aesthetic costume, his lilies and languors, his blue china (“them flymy little bits o' blue”), and all the rest of it were taken from the hard-working, publicity-hating pre-Raphaelites. No doubt he stole his gilded rags from them, but his real master in the art of getting talked about was someone quite different; one of the most astute and attractive adventurers who ever worked himself from nothing to sway the fortunes of a great empire — Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli, like Wilde, had set out to conquer society by his wits, and had done anything and everything to get himself talked about and to push his way — a Julien Sorel who succeeded. At the age of twenty-one Disraeli had written in an absurd novel of genius, “To enter into high society a man must either have blood, a million, or a genius.” Neither Disraeli nor Wilde had a million or “blood.” It was Disraeli who had strained every faculty to dominate the most brilliant of his contemporaries by his mots and unflagging talk, and they honestly agreed that “the cleverest fellow in the party was the young Jew in the green velvet trousers.” Moreover, the young Dizzy used aestheticism and fancy dress to advertise himself, bursting upon the world in “the black velvet dress-coat lined with white satin, the gorgeous gold flowers on a splendidly embroidered waistcoat, the jewelled rings worn outside the white gloves, the evening cane of ivory inlaid with gold and adorned with a tassel of black silk.”
Young Disraeli’s hero was not Brummell, as is supposed, but Byron, who also in his day wore astonishing clothes and dazzled the world with sartorial fame. Wilde took Disraeli and Disraeli's novels as his guide to worldly success with the English aristocracy. Just as Dizzy dropped his dandyism like a hot potato when he began to succeed in Parliament, so Wilde changed into the clothes of a gentleman when he left America. But, in taking Disraeli as a model, Wilde overlooked certain important factors. Disraeli's early novels are exaggerated, they are intentional caricatures of Disraeli's arrivisme; moreover, the dandy posings and strained bons mots did him harm — lots of people thought Dizzy a mountebank until the magnificent speech introducing his first budget; and then Wilde lacked much that Disraeli had — the concentrated ambition, the unflagging energy and determination, the tireless patience, the character of granite. We know now what success was scored by master and pupil, and can estimate their respective abilities in the conduct of life. It is odd that Wilde never noticed that Disraeli had once remarked of a character —“the only way to keep him out of the House of Correction was to get him into the House of Commons.”
Wilde’s poems were published and went into several editions—of two hundred copies each. His sayings were repeated.
It has been said, but never proved, that Wilde was entrapped into making this tour by the impresario of Gilbert and Sullivan, who thought it necessary to show Americans just what was being parodied in Bunthome. If true, the discredit falls not on Wilde, but on the perpetrators of a somewhat dirty deal The turpitude of the thing lies in Wilde’s willingness to cheapen for the sake of a little money and a lot of worthless notoriety two generations of poets, painters, and critics who had never asked for a penny of money and who hated noisy publicity. They had worked, as artists should work, silently and to do the best that was in them, living poorly when they were poor, mostly on small private incomes and the purchases of a few patrons, disregarding the screams and squibs and “serious” critics, and only asking the public to take or leave their work as it chose. After leaving it for a long time, but with plenty of mud-throwing, the public at last began to take it Furthermore, these poets and painters had never cared what other countries said about them — they left the spite and envy and denigration as unheeded and unanswered as the even more destructive “serious criticism,” which is the most malicious form of impotence. And then Wilde made the whole movement ridiculous, opening the breach by which the Philistine attack could be made. Having done all the lecturing mischief possible both in England and America, Mr. Wilde collected his dollars, dropped his mountebanks clothes into the Atlantic, and turned up in Paris as an English gentleman, where he started to clear himself by writing “The Sphinx.”
The money derived from the aesthetic lectures in costume was easily spent, and Wilde was soon back in London, generously giving help and shelter to a penniless poet, and earning a little money by lecturing in the English provinces. In a moment of mental lassitude Wilde made the blunder (imagine Disraeli doing anything of equivalent folly 1) of asking Whistler’s help in composing a lecture on painting; for Whistler, at once the most generous and meanest of men, was certain to make public the obligation, to exaggerate it, and to twit his “friend” without urbanity:
“What has Oscar in common with Art? except that he dines at our tables and picks from our platters the plums for the pudding he peddles in the provinces. Oscar—the amiable, irresponsible, esurient Oscar. . . .” (“The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.")
The most revealing item in that rather strained attempt at satire is the curious use of the word “amiable” as a term of abuse. It is true enough—Oscar was amiable, but who except the “Butterfy” would have thought of it as a demerit?
Poetry, costume, and lecturing having all failed to conquer society, Wilde seems to have become desperate, and plunge! recklessly into reviewing and marriage. His wife was a sweetly pretty young woman with the significant attraction of a considerable dowry, which enabled the couple to set up at 16 Tite Street, Chelsea. This marriage, which inevitably could only turn out unhappily, took place on May 29, 1884; and there were two children. The problem of Wilde’s ambiguous sexual nature is certainly complicated by the fact that at an earlier time he had been in love (genuinely or as a pose?) with the beautiful Lily Langtry, while more than one personal friend at the time asserts that Mr. and Mrs. Wilde seemed very much in love, and that Oscar, especially, appeared very happy. It is not true to say, as is often said, that Wilde, immediately after marriage, accepted the editorship of the Womans World to support his wife. He did not do that until June 1887, after the birth of his two sons.
It was as a reviewer—in fact in the role of a journalist, which Wilde so snobbishly affected to despise— that he began to find himself as a prose writer, though, it is true, he seldom again match«! the grace and cadence of the end of “LEnvoi,” which was written in America. Considering that nearly all reviews are hastily written it is not surprising that so many are too slovenly and dull for republication. Wilde’s reviews stand up well, especially those written for the comparatively free mental atmosphere of the Pall Mall Gazette. Some of them are very witty, and only the long editorials for the Woman’s World (“Literary and Other Notes”) are so toned down to their audience as to be insipid. Quite a number of afterwards famous mots and passages for Intentions first appeared in these Pall Mall Gazette reviews. Unfortunately, these pieces only appear (so far as I know) in the Collected Editions; and, still more unfortunately, the American Collected Edition volume of criticisms and reviews includes a lot of the tamer articles, and leaves out much of what is amusing and brilliant. I have given in this volume a few snippets from the Pall Mall reviews, and wish space had enabled me to give many more.
It was an ironic twist of circumstances which for two years compelled Wilde, as editor of the Womans World, to write flattering chronicles of a sex in which he daily became less interested. But the eighties were the period of Wilde’s development and of his real work. Though still bitterly pursued by Punch (which having once found a joke is reluctant to drop, it in case of never hitting on another), Oscar Wilde was socially successful, and was welcomed at many a luncheon and dinner table for the pleasure guests took in his talk. He now visited Paris, not as an unknown aesthete retreating from America, but as a social figure who was written up in the French press by his friend, Robert Sherard. He met Moréas and Verlaine, Mallarmé, Gourmont, and Gide—perhaps also Huysmans, whom he greatly admired. I do not know what Yeats means by saying that Wilde talked “with a manner and music that he had learnt from Pater or Flaubert,” for though Wilde certainly “fluted” like Pater, he never met Flaubert (who died in 1880), and if he had tried any of his aesthetic blarney on the irritable sage of Croisset would have received as ferocious a snub as Henry James when he made the unlucky remark in Flaubert’s presence that the Duc de Saint-Simon is a bad writer. From this distance of time it looks as if Wilde’s Paris acquaintances were chiefly among the upper Bohemia—the kind of people who are aristocrats to artists, or artists to aristocrats.
With his customary good nature Wilde never complained of the hack-work he had to do for the Woman’s World (the only writing of his which is comparatively lifeless and uninteresting) or of his reviewing, which I suspect he rather enjoyed within limits. But work is a habit like everything else, and it was during the last half of the eighties that Wilde did much of the work which brought him genuine fame in the nineties. Once more he looked about for some form of writing which would enable him to express the charm of his personality, to employ effectively his talents and accomplishments. He tried the fairy tale, the short story, the Platonic dialogue, and the novel. In every one of these he obtained brilliant results, except perhaps in the short stray as soon as it ceased to be either a parable or a prose poem.
The publication in book form of The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888 brought a letter of commendation from Walter Pater, and at last furnished an answer to catty old ladies who wanted to know what Mr. Wflde had done, and was he a soldier? “the Canterville Ghost”—somewhat too obviously aimed at the American public—was published in a periodical in 1887. Two years later Wilde issued serially “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”; “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”; and “The Decay of Lying.” We can see from die diversity of his attempts at tins time how anxiously he was looking for a form which would please a bigger audience. “The Sphinx Without a Secret” and the “Model Millionaire” are magazine stones and best passed over in silence. “The Canterville Ghost” is much better, an attempt at supernatural farce — a somewhat distant tribute perhaps to Edgar Poe. “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” is a biographical sketch of Wainewright, author and aesthete, forger and probably poisoner. Egotists seldom make good biographers, tending as they must to exhibit themselves rather than their nominal subjects; so the chief interest of this study is extraneous, the melancholy coincidence that Wainewright too was a man of culture and talents who stood his trial, and was sentenced to transportation for life.
“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” is more original, ingenious and entertaining for, by a clever manipulation of extracts from Shakespeare’s Sonnets Wilde makes out a seemingly excellent case to a benevolent reader for believing that the sonnets were written to a Mr. W. H., or Willie Hughes, a handsome boy actor who played women’s parts on the Elizabethan stage. I say “benevolent,” because apart from the serious obstacle that no such person as Willie Hughes is known to have existed, a study of the sonnets alongside Wilde’s fictionalized essay shows at once how much he has solicited the text. Still, the idea so fascinated him that he persuaded Ricketts to paint him a portrait of Mr. W. H. in the style of Clouet. It was not very wise to write this essay; but in the state of public opinion at that day publication was madness. Apart from other dangerous implications, there is particular emphasis on the cult of “Alexis” by certain minor Elizabethan poets; and, as everyone knows, “Alexis” names the second eclogue of Vergil, “Formosum pastor Corydon ardebat Alexin, Delicias domini” … an exquisitely beautiful poem but flagrantly homosexual. To anyone who had read Vergil — and at that time most upper-class Englishmen had —“The Portrait of Mr, W. H.” was an unequivocal declaration and an insolent defiance. Prudent men began to drop Mr. Wilde’s acquaintance.
Nevertheless, so pleasant and charming was Wilde in company, that many people—in spite of this evidence which to us looks so obvious — refused to believe any thing against him. The late Wilfrid Scawen Blunt used to give an annual dinner at Crabbet Park to a small group of distinguished friends he called the Crabbet Club—members were automatically expelled when they became prime ministers or proconsuls. It was the custom that each new member should be charged after dinner with any and all misdoings alleged against him by public gossip, and from this he had to defend himself. I once spent a week-end with Mr. Blunt, and he told me that when Wilde was the new member of the Club he was attacked rather savagely by George Wynd- ham (an uncle of Lord Alfred Douglas, who was also related to Blunt) and that Wilde got up and made so witty and laughable a speech, humorously admitting everything of which he was afterwards convicted but excusing it on the ground of its being necessary to his art, that Mr. Blunt at any rate was wholly convinced of .his innocence. (Douglas gives a very different version of this episode; I relate it as nearly as I can remember Mr.
Wilde found himself as a writer, and easily excelled all he had hitherto published, with “The Decay of Lying”; followed in 1890 by two even finer Platonic dialogues which appeared in The Nineteenth Century while The Picture of Dorian Gray was coming out serially in Lippincott’s Magazine. The form of the dialogue has often been used by English writers who hoped to give a light tone to their reflections and ideas, from Dryden’s Of Dramatick Poesie and Bishop Berkeley’s Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists down to Flecker’s The Grecians and Sturge Moore’s Hark to These Three Talk about Art; but none has produced dialogues so readable, so witty, so coloured, so eloquent, so solidly constructed and full of thought and good sense.
Certainly, in these dialogues there are faults of affectation, of paradox not more than half true, of exuberance — but surely we may forgive the paradoxes for their wit, the exuberances for their beauty, and even the affectations for their harmlessness. “The Decay of Lying” was a plea for imagination and the beau idéal as against the then rising school of realists, unfortunately still with us, who “find life crude and leave it raw.” Pater, breathing the remoter air of Oxford, held that “all art aspires to the condition of music”; but Wilde seems to have had a momentary prescience of the horror that was coming, when all art would aspire to the condition of journalism.
I shall not dwell upon the learning of these three dialogues, learning which is used so lightly and so appreciatively, to give the reader pleasure, to stimulate appreciation, to communicate enthusiasm. It is one of the misfortunes of our times that under the stress of our apparently infinite public calamities we have forgotten how to admire, that we who have much to learn or re-learn from our predecessors in the arts think it becoming to treat them with the contempt of ignorance. Like his masters in criticism, Buskin, Pater, and J. A. Symonds, Wilde believed that criticism exists to help peole to enjoy art, not to disgust them by wearisome superiorities and browbeating.
I have collected references to thirty-two painters including such precise recollections as “Guido’s ‘Saint Sebastian in Genoa,” “Perugino’s Ganymede in Perugia,” “Corregio’s lily-bearer in the Cathedral at Parma,” and so on. He may of course have taken these from Symonds or Ruskin (whose knowledge of medieval and Renaissance painting respectively has rarely been equalled), but it looks as if they were genuine. At any rate Wilde also cites painters so diverse as Angelico and Boucher, Blake and Giorgione; Mantegna and Van Huysum. I am not claiming that he was a “serious critic” of painting. All I claim is that he had seen more pictures than those in the Dublin Art Gallery, and cared about them as a source of artistic pleasure.
Wilde’s latent dramatic talent must surely be counted among the most potent reasons for the success of his dialogues. Wilde loved the stage, and by 1890-91 had already made more than one unsuccessful attempt at tragedy. Now that he was “getting warm,” as children say, and coining near his true vocation of comedy, he was diverted by Lippincott’s offer for him to write a novel, which resulted in The Picture of Dorian Gray. One of the striking facts about this book has nothing whatever to do with its merits or demerits as a novel. It is that the character of Dorian Gray and his relationship to Lord Henry Wotton (Wilde) were imagined and written down before Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas. The subsequent reality seemed to give some substance to the hoary paradox about Life imitating Art; and when Robert Hichens wrote his cruelly witty The Green Carnation from a personal study of Wilde and Douglas in Egypt he often seemed to be
parodying the conversations in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Take this, for instance:
“Oh! he has not changed,” said Mr. Amarinth [Wilde]. “That is so wonderful. He never develops at all. He alone understands the beauty of rigidity, the exquisite serenity of the statuesque nature. Men always fall into the absurdity of endeavouring to develop the mind, to push it violently forward in this direction or in that. The mind should be receptive, a harp waiting to catch the winds, a pool ready to be ruffled, not a bustling busybody, forever trotting about on the pavement looking for a new bun shop. ...”
The parody is so close to exact imitation that it scarcely gives itself away until the end of the last sentence. The Green Carnation is in fact so like Wilde that it is the best thing Hichens ever wrote.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a very literary novel, an exposition of Wilde’s exaggerated hedonism, and, like his other writings, so dominated by the author’s personality that all other characters are reduced to shadows. Several books have been suggested as the basis of this novel — Balzacs La Peau de Chagrin (1831), J. K. Huysman’s A Rebours (1884), R. L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). 1 see a little of Balzac’s novel and a good deal of Stevenson’s in Dorian Gray. Some critics go so far as to hint that the whole thing was lifted from Huysmans. I can scarcely believe that they can have read A Rebours. It is true that A Rebours must be the French novel which “fascinated” Dorian Gray, and that its hero Des Esseintes is an aesthete who delights in the perverse and artificial. Beyond that the resemblance ceases. Wilde’s chapter on jewels can hardly, be derived from A Rebours (which hasn’t much about precious stones except for the episode of the tortpise encased in gold and gems), and the chapter on tapestries and embroidery comes from Ernest Lefebure’s Embroidery and Lace, the English translation of Wilde had reviewed. Des Esseintes is a misanthropic, dyspeptic, prematurely impotent, neurotic Parisian who retires from Paris to complete isolation, sleeping by day and living by night, occasionally enlivened by some ghastly sexual nightmare, and trying to whip up his jaded senses by such witty devices as collecting flowers which look as if they were made of zinc, admiring the last sterile drippings of the imitators of the generation of 1830, reading Latin poets, of the Dark Ages (taken by Huysmans not from the originals but from Ebert s Attgemeine Geschichte der Literatur des Mittelakers), enjoying an imaginary trip to England by smelling a tarry rope, reading Dickens and Baedeker, and drinking port in a bodega, and so on. The intense taedium vitae which drove Huysmans eventually into the Church finds full expression in this work. But what a contrast is The Picture of Dorian Gray! In comparison the bloom of health is on its cheek. Wildes fault was not a sterile taedium vitae, but rather “too much love of (good) living; and few more amiably sociable men ever existed. Wilde’s book is full of amusing if over-studied talk and witticisms; whereas Des Esseintes rarely gets beyond such eloquence as “‘Sapristi!’ dit-il enthousiasme!” A Rebours is all sulky monologue and self-pity, where Dorian Gray, for all its affected “sins” and tragical ending, is full of the enjoyment of life and of sunny talk. The Picture of Dorian Gray owes little to A Rebours, but Salomé may owe a good deal.
Perhaps the weakest scenes in Dorian Gray occur in chapters XVII and XVIII, when Wilde was growing weary of his imposed task and tried to brighten his last pages with a snappy Duchess. Unluckily indeed, instead of makinh her talk like Wilde, he tried to make her talk like the characters in a Meredith novel — and the result is dreadful, though it certainly was a sincere flattery of the author of The Egoist. But to find the plain factual origin of the magic picture idea (which is, after all, the central part of the novel’s plot, just as the talk and “philosophy” are its real excuse), we must go back to a book which appeared in 1826.
Wilde christened his first novel Dorian Gray and his second son Vivian; and Benjamin Disraeli called his first novel, Vivian Grey. It is a remarkable though very unequal performance, full of insolence and naivete, with excellent thumb-nail sketches of character and a heap of epigrams lost in a frantic, purposeless plot and floods of would-be German romanticism. Far more than any of Browning’s books it deserves Wilde’s description,—“chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning.” I suppose (though I don’t know) that Wilde read this as a boy in his mother’s library, and found in it the theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as he had found hints and inspiration for his advertising career in the life of Disraeli. Since to the best of my knowledge this source has never been pointed out before, I may perhaps be forgiven for quoting this curious piece of Disraeli juvenilia:
“Max Rodenstein was the glory of his house. A being so beautiful in body and in soul you cannot imagine, and I will not attempt to describe . . . The only wish of Baroness Rodenstein, which never could be accomplished, was the possession of a portrait of her youngest son, for no consideration could induce Max to allow his likeness to be taken. His old nurse had always told him that the moment his portrait was taken he would die. The condition upon which such a beautiful thing was allowed to remain in the world was, she always said, that his beauty should not be imitated. About three months before the battle of Leipsic, Max was absent at the University, which was nearly four hundred miles from Rodenstein Castle, there arrived one morning a large case directed to the Baroness. On opening it it was found to contain a ni ture, the portrait of her son. The colouring was so vivid, th general execution so miraculous, that for some moments they forgot to wonder at the incident in their admiration of the work of art. In one corner of the picture, in small characters yet fresh, was an inscription which on examining they found consisted of these words: “Painted last night. Now, lady, thou hast thy wish.” My aunt sank into the Baron’s arms . . .
The next day they received letters from Max. He was quite well, but mentioned nothing of the mysterious painting.
Three months afterwards, as a lady was sitting-alone in the Baroness’s room, and gazing on the portrait of him she loved right dearly, she suddenly started from her seat, and would have shrieked, had not an indefinable sensation prevented her. The eyes of the portrait moved. The lady stood leaning on a chair, pale and trembling like an aspen, but gazing steadfastly on the animated portrait. It was no illusion of a heated fancy; again the eyelids trembled, there was a melancholy smile, and then they closed.The clock of Rodenstein Castle struck three . . . Three days afterwards came the news of the battle of Leipsic, and at the very moment that the eyes of the portrait closed Max Rodenstein had been pierced by a Polish Lancer!”
A little further on, apropos other things, is the sentence: “I fancy that in this mysterious foreigner, I have met a kind of double of myself”; and a page or two beyond Disraeli speaks of “an intellectual Don Juan, reckless of human minds, as he was of human bodies, a spiritual libertine.” Put these together with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and you have the basis for The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of course Disraeli picked up his fantasy from German Romantics, but Wilde’s truly amazing feat is the bringing up to date and breathing life into such obsolete fustian.
At this point I should like to pause a moment and to ask the reader to consider more particularly Wilde’s method of building a piece of writing. Absolute originality in art is of course a delusion. Not only are we all the sons of somebody in whatever art we attempt, but the “higher” our aims the greater the number of predecessors to whom we are indebted. Willed originality is false originality. The only true originality is unconscious or at least unplotted — a fresh way of looking at the world, a new personality. All writers borrow from others, consciously or unconsciously. The successful — I mean artistically successful — do it consciously, and justify themselves by claiming that they improve their thefts. Writers who try to avoid these obligations and labour to appear wholly original are inevitably either dull or preposterous.
As a poet, as a critic, as a novelist, and later as a dramatist, Wilde openly took materials from many sources and put them together in the confident belief that he was making a new synthesis, that his unique personality would transform them into something fresh and attractive. I have touched on a few of the sources of Wilde’s poems, his dialogues, and The Picture of Dorian Gray; and the reader s degree of esteem for Wilde as a writer will depend on how far he thinks Wilde did succeed in remaking these inherited materials into something fascinating and new. Those who accuse Wilde of plagiarism are in a sense right; but the borrowing is too open for it to be considered as anything but deliberate. For instance, in the very first paragraph of “The Decay of Lying” there is a sentence about the mist on the hills looking like die bloom on a ripe plum; and this was taken from a contemporary poet whose work Wilde had reviewed, picking out this very image for praise. A little further on he amusingly takes up Whistlers phrase about “having the courage of the opinions of others” (a phrase Whistler had used to try to squelch Wilde), and prints it without any acknowledgment. To those who are still doubtful of the value of such work, I would say: “Very well, show me art criticism which has the quality and charm and wit of Wilde’s dialogues, bring me a novel like Dorian Gray, or even poems with that "something’ Wilde added to his innumerable poetic borrowings.” Returning for a moment to The Picture of Dorian Gray — it seems reasonable to suppose that Wilde did not care very much for the idea of this supernatural portrait he borrowed from Disraeli’s forgotten first novel. It pleased the commercial publisher, helped to create the effect of an aesthetic novel, provided a facile “moral” (for which Wilde did not care tuppence, but which the public demanded), and provided, so to speak, a rough framework of sticks on which the modeller could build his group.
Actually there is only one character in the book — Oscar Wilde. The notion of dual personality was much in vogue at the time, as shown by the enormous success of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In himself Wilde had a genuine case to display. Lord Henry Wotton is Wilde as he hoped to remain, Dorian Gray as he feared he might become. It almost seems as if Wilde were warning himself throughout the book that as long as he kept his aesthetic theories (ie. his homosexuality) to the realm of pure Platonism and idealistic art, he was safe; but that as soon as he transferred them to the sphere of action he was courting disaster. Many of his contemporaries noted with surprise the vein of shrewd common sense in Wilde. It comes out in Henry Wotton when Dorian Gray hints to him that he has murdered Basil Hallward — Lord Henry shrugs it off and says, “My dear fellow, one should never do anything one can’t talk about after dinner.”
The novel then is a projection into life of Pater’s phrase about “the dialogue of the soul with itself.” What conclusion Wilde came to is hard to say, for he was constricted on all sides by prejudices and commercial obligations, so that the end of the book is melodramatic and dull. Perhaps its real ending comes when Dorian decides to renounce Hetty, and finds he has only added hypocrisy to his other crimes. A man cannot escape the consequences of his temperament, Wilde implies; when he tries to do die conventional “right thing” he merely blunders. And then, after all, what is it the “world” punishes? Not crime, but the error of being found out; not squalid meanness, cheating, oppression, and infinite humbug, but distinction, beauty, genius, culture, all that is above the average:
“There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings. It is better not to be different from one’s fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. .. .”
How true that is! It is not the whole tragedy of Man, but it is one of his tragedies. But how odd it seems that Wilde, knowing all this, should have acted as he did, that even as he wrote these and other paragraphs of worldly — and world — wisdom, he was digging the grave of his own career and all he cared for with frenzied folly. And now in 1891 he was on the verge of that financial success which was to add “hybris” to his other errors—hybris, that insolent excess against which his masters of Greek drama and Greek philosophy had warned him. In the person of Alfred Douglas he met the pinchbeck Antinous with whom he was to play the part of a fatuous and feeble Hadrian.
Wilde had for years been trying to write a successful play. In 1883 he returned to America for the production of Vera; and the Duchess of Padua was produced in 1891 at the Broadway Theater, New York. But his first success was with Lady Windermere’s Fan (February 20, 1892) in London; shortly after which license was refused for Sàlomé. The earlier and minor plays may be fairly safely neglected, which reduces those to be considered to three comedy-dramas, one comedy-farce, and a tragedy. By general consent S aimé and The Importance of Being Earnest are placed at the head of Wilde’s stage writings; and, for once, general consent is quite right, though the other three are by no means the negligible imitations they are sometimes said to be.
Wilde had two distinct styles of writing, though he sometimes mixed them (as in the dialogues) with the happiest results. One of these was the aesthetic or symbolist style, gorgeous and poetic, full of allusion and reminiscence and jewelled words (the purple patch, as it is so aptly called) ; and the other fight, worldly, cynical, paradoxical, full of laughter. In his plays he mostly kept them apart, and on the few occasions when he does attempt the purple patch in his comedy-dramas, the result is failure. It was grotesque to make drawing-room characters suddenly talk the speech of Salammbô and the Tentation, but it was appropriate enough for Salomé.
The tale of Salomé dancing before the Tetrarch Herod, and demanding as her reward “the head of John the Baptist on a charger” is of course a world story, and belongs to any artist or writer who thinks himself strong enough to re-handle it It appears first at no more than anecdote length, in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew and the seventh of St. Mark. The name “Slaome” is not mentioned in the Gospels, but she is the “daughter of Herodias.” The theme was often handled by the old masters of painting. Rubens painted a Salomé for example, and a picture of her by a Venetian master used to hang in the London National Gallery.
The theme came up again in France in the late seventies and early eighties. Gustave Moreau, a painter who did not rest content with “visual experiences” of two oranges and a banana, produced a number of imaginative and detailed visions of ideal beauty between 1850 and his death. He painted two pictures of the Salomé legend, one before the dance, and the other, “L’Apparition,” showing with great power and gorgeous decoration Salomes hallucinated vision of the decapitated saint after she has gained her terrible reward. The picture was one of the most discussed at the Salon of 1876.
Did Flaubert see these pictures? I think he probably did, and that they suggested his marvellously imagined story of Herodias — first mentioned in his correspondence, apparently as a new idea for a story, in an undated letter to Madame des Genettes, placed by Madame Commanville in May 1876—the month of the spring salon. On this story Flaubert concentrated his erudition, his personal knowledge of the Near East, and the limitless resources of his prose. He developed the story far beyond the mere outline of the New Testament, created and motivated the characters, constructed the setting, and made the seemingly purposeless murder entirely credible. As often with Flaubert, the end is severely toned-down and matter of fact. The disciples flee with John’s head —“As it was very heavy they carried it alternately.”
Then came Huysmans with the A Rebours we have already dipped into apropos The Picture of Dorian Gray. Several over-written pages are devoted to a very interesting interpretation of Moreau’s pictures (Flaubert is not mentioned) and, as the critics put it, “the note of perversity and sadism was added.” This was in 1884, and not long afterwards Wilde began talking about a play on Salomé, telling people his version of it, and changing his mind about the treatment of Salomé’s character. “Plagiarism!” cry the censorious. But whose? Surely Wilde had as much right to make use of the work of his predecessors as Huysmans, as much right to dramatize Flaubert, Moreau, and Huysmans as Shakespeare had to take a play from a new novel by Robert Greene or a short story by Giraldi Cinthio or the historical legends of Holinshed. As to Wilde having taken the method of Salomé from Maeterlinck, it seems from what Sherard says that he mud: have been at work on it before Maeterlinck’s first play was published. Very soon after, anyway.
Wilde has been successful in reconstituting this grotesque old tragedy, and in supplying some very dramatic motivations avoided by his predecessors. Flaubert kept to the ancient narrative, and made Salomedie more or less innocent tool of her mother Herodias, while he supplied the description of the famous dance (which has since inspired so many poets and dancers) from his recollections of the performance given by an Arab harlot he knew in Egypt. Wilde brings Salomé into the foreground at once, and keeps her there. He takes up Huysmans’s hint of the predatory lust of Woman, and makes Salomé fall in love with the chaste saint, who of course ungallantly rebuffs her with a good deal of scriptural insult. Seeing her stepfather, the Tetrarch, is plainly hankering after her, Salomé dances for him (against the strenuous opposition of her mother) after having made him promise a reward, “even to half my kingdom.” The end is original and dramatic. As Salomé in a frenzy of remorse and sinister blood-lust kisses the lips of the severed head, Herod in a spasm of jealousy orders his soldiers: “Kill that woman!”
Here again we see Wilde’s habitual method of openly taking material from sources everyone knew and recombining them into something of his own, colouring and dominating them by his personality. I incline to believe him when he says that he used the repetitions in Salomé (which Max Nordau in his Degeneration solemnly proclaimed to be an infallible sign of cretinism!)—that he used these repetitions to give Hie effect of the refrain in an old ballad. This would give him priority over Maeterlinck — not that