Selected Prose of Oscar Wilde - Oscar Wilde - ebook
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Wilde’s prose is distinguished by its extraordinary ease and clarity, and by the absence—very singular in his case—of the preciosity which he admired too much in other writers, and advocated with over-emphasis. Perhaps that is why many of his stories and essays and plays are used as English text-books in Russian and Scandinavian and Hungarian schools. Artifice and affectation, often assumed to be recurrent defects in his writings by those unacquainted with them, are comparatively rare. Wilde once boasted in an interview that only Flaubert, Pater, Keats, and Maeterlinck had influenced him, and then added in a characteristic way: “But I had already gone more than half-way to meet them.”

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Oscar Wilde

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Table of contents

PREFACE

HOW THEY STRUCK A CONTEMPORARY

THE QUALITY OF GEORGE MEREDITH

LIFE THE FALLACIOUS MODEL

LIFE THE DISCIPLE

LIFE THE PLAGIARIST

THE INDISPENSABLE EAST

THE INFLUENCE OF THE IMPRESSIONISTS ON CLIMATE

AN EXPOSURE OF NATURALISM

THOMAS GRIFFITHS WAINEWRIGHT

WAINEWRIGHT AT HOBART TOWN

CARDINAL NEWMAN AND THE AUTOBIOGRAPHERS

ROBERT BROWNING

THE TWO SUPREME AND HIGHEST ARTS

THE SECRETS OF IMMORTALITY

THE CRITIC AND HIS MATERIAL

DANTE THE LIVING GUIDE

THE LIMITATIONS OF GENIUS

WANTED A NEW BACKGROUND

WITHOUT FRONTIERS

THE POETRY OF ARCHÆOLOGY

THE ART OF ARCHÆOLOGY

HEROD SUPPLIANT

THE TETRARCH’S REMORSE

THE TETRARCH’S TREASURE

SALOMÉ ANTICIPATES DR. STRAUSS

THE YOUNG KING

A CORONATION

THE KING OF SPAIN

A BULL FIGHT

THE THRONE ROOM

A PROTECTED COUNTRY

THE BLACKMAILING OF THE EMPEROR

COVENT GARDEN

A LETTER FROM MISS JANE PERCY TO HER AUNT

THE TRIUMPH OF AMERICAN ‘HUMOR’

THE GARDEN OF DEATH

AN ETON KIT-CAT

MRS. ERLYNNE EXERCISES THE PREROGATIVE OF A GRANDMOTHER

MOTHERHOOD MORE THAN MARRIAGE

THE DAMNABLE IDEAL

FROM A REJECTED PRIZE-ESSAY

THE POSSIBILITIES OF THE USEFUL

THE ARTIST

THE DOER OF GOOD

THE DISCIPLE

THE MASTER

THE HOUSE OF JUDGMENT

THE TEACHER OF WISDOM

WILDE GIVES DIRECTIONS ABOUT ‘DE PROFUNDIS’

CAREY STREET

SORROW WEARS NO MASK

VITA NUOVA

THE GRAND ROMANTIC

CLAPHAM JUNCTION

THE BROKEN RESOLUTION

DOMESTICITY AT BERNEVAL

A VISIT TO THE POPE

FOOTNOTES

PREFACE

With the possible exceptions of the Greek Anthology, the “Golden Treasury” and those which bear the name of E. V. Lucas, no selections of poetry or prose have ever given complete satisfaction to anyone except the compiler.  But critics derive great satisfaction from pointing out errors of omission and inclusion on the part of the anthologist, and all of us have putatively re-arranged and re-edited even the “Golden Treasury” in our leisure moments.  In an age when “Art for Art’s sake” is an exploded doctrine, anthologies, like everything else, must have a purpose.  The purpose or object of the present volume is to afford admirers of Wilde’s work the same innocent pleasure obtainable from similar compilations, namely that of reconstructing a selection of their own in their mind’s eye—for copyright considerations would interfere with the materialisation of their dream.A stray observation in an esteemed weekly periodical determined the plan of this anthology and the choice of particular passages.  The writer, whose name has escaped me, opined that the reason the works of Pater and Wilde were no longer read was owing to both authors having treated English as a dead language.  By a singular coincidence I had purchased simultaneously with the newspaper a shilling copy of Pater’s “Renaissance,” published by Messrs. Macmillan; and a few days afterwards Messrs. Methuen issued at a shilling the twenty-eighth edition of “De Profundis.”  Obviously either Messrs. Macmillan and Messrs. Methuen or the authority on dead languages must have been suffering from hallucinations.  It occurred to me that a selection of Wilde’s prose might at least rehabilitate the notorious reputation for common sense enjoyed by all publishers, who rarely issue shilling editions of deceased authors for mere æsthetic considerations.  And I confess to a hope that this volume may reach the eye or ear of those who have not read Wilde’s books, or of those, such as Mr. Sydney Grundy, who are irritated by the revival of his plays and the praise accorded to his works throughout the Continent.Wilde’s prose is distinguished by its extraordinary ease and clarity, and by the absence—very singular in his case—of the preciosity which he admired too much in other writers, and advocated with over-emphasis.  Perhaps that is why many of his stories and essays and plays are used as English text-books in Russian and Scandinavian and Hungarian schools.  Artifice and affectation, often assumed to be recurrent defects in his writings by those unacquainted with them, are comparatively rare.  Wilde once boasted in an interview that only Flaubert, Pater, Keats, and Maeterlinck had influenced him, and then added in a characteristic way: “But I had already gone more than half-way to meet them.”  Anyone curious as to the origin of Wilde’s style and development should consult the learned treatise {1} of Dr. Ernst Bendz, whose comprehensive treatment of the subject renders any elucidation of mine superfluous; while nothing can be added to Mr. Holbrook Jackson’s masterly criticism {2} of Wilde and his position in literature.In making this selection, with the valuable assistance of Mr. Stuart Mason, I have endeavoured to illustrate and to justify the critical appreciations of both Dr. Bendz and Mr. Holbrook Jackson, as well as to afford the general reader a fair idea of Wilde’s variety as a prose writer.  He is more various than almost any author of the last century, though the act of writing was always a burden to him.  Some critic acutely pointed out that poetry and prose were almost side-issues for him.  The resulting faults and weakness of what he left are obvious.  Except in the plays he has no sustained scheme of thought.  Even “De Profundis” is too desultory.For the purpose of convenient reference I have exercised the prerogative of a literary executor and editor by endowing with special titles some of the pieces quoted in these pages.  Though unlike one of Wilde’s other friends I cannot claim to have collaborated with him or to have assisted him in any of his plays, I was sometimes permitted, as Wilde acknowledges in different letters, to act in the capacity of godfather by suggesting the actual titles by which some of his books are known to the world.  I mention the circumstance only as a precedent for my present temerity.  To compensate those who disapprove of my choice, I have included two unpublished letters.  The examples of Wilde’s epistolary style, published since his death, have been generally associated with disagreeable subjects.  Those included here will, I hope, prove a pleasant contrast.ROBERT ROSS

HOW THEY STRUCK A CONTEMPORARY

There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.  As for Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration.  Nor are our other novelists much better.  Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.  Mr. Hall Caine, it is true, aims at the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his voice.  He is so loud that one cannot bear what he says.  Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding.  He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a short-sighted detective.  As one turns over the pages, the suspense of the author becomes almost unbearable.  The horses of Mr. William Black’s phaeton do not soar towards the sun.  They merely frighten the sky at evening into violent chromolithographic effects.  On seeing them approach, the peasants take refuge in dialect.  Mrs. Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawn-tennis parties, domesticity, and other wearisome things.  Mr. Marion Crawford has immolated himself upon the altar of local colour.  He is like the lady in the French comedy who keeps talking about “le beau ciel d’Italie.”  Besides, he has fallen into the bad habit of uttering moral platitudes.  He is always telling us that to be good is to be good, and that to be bad is to be wicked.  At times he is almost edifying.  Robert Elsmere is of course a masterpiece—a masterpiece of the “genre ennuyeux,” the one form of literature that the English people seems thoroughly to enjoy.  A thoughtful young friend of ours once told us that it reminded him of the sort of conversation that goes on at a meat tea in the house of a serious Nonconformist family, and we can quite believe it.  Indeed it is only in England that such a book could be produced.  England is the home of lost ideas.  As for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the sun always rises in the East-End, the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.—The Decay of Lying.

THE QUALITY OF GEORGE MEREDITH

Ah!  Meredith!  Who can define him?  His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning.  As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything except articulate.  Somebody in Shakespeare—Touchstone, I think—talks about a man who is always breaking his shins over his own wit, and it seems to me that this might serve as the basis for a criticism of Meredith’s method.  But whatever he is, he is not a realist.  Or rather I would say that he is a child of realism who is not on speaking terms with his father.  By deliberate choice he has made himself a romanticist.  He has refused to bow the knee to Baal, and after all, even if the man’s fine spirit did not revolt against the noisy assertions of realism, his style would be quite sufficient of itself to keep life at a respectful distance.  By its means he has planted round his garden a hedge full of thorns, and red with wonderful roses.  As for Balzac, he was a most remarkable combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit.  The latter he bequeathed to his disciples.  The former was entirely his own.  The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality.  ‘All Balzac’s characters;’ said Baudelaire, ‘are gifted with the same ardour of life that animated himself.  All his fictions are as deeply coloured as dreams.  Each mind is a weapon loaded to the muzzle with will.  The very scullions have genius.’  A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades.  His characters have a kind of fervent fiery-coloured existence.  They dominate us, and defy scepticism.  One of the greatest tragedies of my life is the death of Lucien de Rubempré.  It is a grief from which I have never been able completely to rid myself.  It haunts me in my moments of pleasure.  I remember it when I laugh.  But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was.  He created life, he did not copy it.  I admit, however, that he set far too high a value on modernity of form, and that, consequently, there is no book of his that, as an artistic masterpiece, can rank with Salammbô or Esmond, or The Cloister and the Hearth, or the Vicomte de Bragelonne.—The Decay of Lying.

LIFE THE FALLACIOUS MODEL

Art begins with abstract decoration, with purely imaginative and pleasurable work dealing with what is unreal and non-existent.  This is the first stage.  Then Life becomes fascinated with this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle.  Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment.  The third stage is when Life gets the upper hand, and drives Art out into the wilderness.  That is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering.

Take the case of the English drama.  At first in the hands of the monks Dramatic Art was abstract, decorative and mythological.  Then she enlisted Life in her service, and using some of life’s external forms, she created an entirely new race of beings, whose sorrows were more terrible than any sorrow man has ever felt, whose joys were keener than lover’s joys, who had the rage of the Titans and the calm of the gods, who had monstrous and marvellous sins, monstrous and marvellous virtues.  To them she gave a language different from that of actual use, a language full of resonant music and sweet rhythm, made stately by solemn cadence, or made delicate by fanciful rhyme, jewelled with wonderful words, and enriched with lofty diction.  She clothed her children in strange raiment and gave them masks, and at her bidding the antique world rose from its marble tomb.  A new Cæsar stalked through the streets of risen Rome, and with purple sail and flute-led oars another Cleopatra passed up the river to Antioch.  Old myth and legend and dream took shape and substance.  History was entirely re-written, and there was hardly one of the dramatists who did not recognise that the object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.  In this they were perfectly right.  Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of over-emphasis.

But Life soon shattered the perfection of the form.  Even in Shakespeare we can see the beginning of the end.  It shows itself by the gradual breaking-up of the blank-verse in the later plays, by the predominance given to prose, and by the over-importance assigned to characterisation.  The passages in Shakespeare—and they are many—where the language is uncouth, vulgar, exaggerated, fantastic, obscene even, are entirely due to Life calling for an echo of her own voice, and rejecting the intervention of beautiful style, through which alone should life be suffered to find expression.  Shakespeare is not by any means a flawless artist.  He is too fond of going directly to life, and borrowing life’s natural utterance.  He forgets that when Art surrenders her imaginative medium she surrenders everything.—The Decay of Lying.

LIFE THE DISCIPLE

We have all seen in our own day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters, has so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream, the long ivory throat, the strange square-cut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that he so ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of ‘The Golden Stair,’ the blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the ‘Laus Amoris,’ the passion-pale face of Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivian in ‘Merlin’s Dream.’  And it has always been so.  A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.  Neither Holbein nor Vandyck found in England what they have given us.  They brought their types with them, and Life with her keen imitative faculty set herself to supply the master with models.  The Greeks, with their quick artistic instinct, understood this, and set in the bride’s chamber the statue of Hermes or of Apollo, that she might bear children as lovely as the works of art that she looked at in her rapture or her pain.  They knew that Life gains from art not merely spirituality, depth of thought and feeling, soul-turmoil or soul-peace, but that she can form herself on the very lines and colours of art, and can reproduce the dignity of Pheidias as well as the grace of Praxiteles.  Hence came their objection to realism.  They disliked it on purely social grounds.  They felt that it inevitably makes people ugly, and they were perfectly right.  We try to improve the conditions of the race by means of good air, free sunlight, wholesome water, and hideous bare buildings for the better housing of the lower orders.  But these things merely produce health, they do not produce beauty.  For this, Art is required, and the true disciples of the great artist are not his studio-imitators, but those who become like his works of art, be they plastic as in Greek days, or pictorial as in modern times; in a word, Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil.—The Decay of Lying.

LIFE THE PLAGIARIST

I once asked a lady, who knew Thackeray intimately, whether he had had any model for Becky Sharp.  She told me that Becky was an invention, but that the idea of the character had been partly suggested by a governess who lived in the neighbourhood of Kensington Square, and was the companion of a very selfish and rich old woman.  I inquired what became of the governess, and she replied that, oddly enough, some years after the appearance of Vanity Fair, she ran away with the nephew of the lady with whom she was living, and for a short time made a great splash in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s style, and entirely by Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s methods.  Ultimately she came to grief, disappeared to the Continent, and used to be occasionally seen at Monte Carlo and other gambling places.  The noble gentleman from whom the same great sentimentalist drew Colonel Newcome died, a few months after The Newcomer