Oscar had built high fantastic hopes on this book. To the very end of his life he believed himself a poet and in the creative sense of the word he was assuredly justified, but he meant it in the singing sense as well, and there his claim can only be admitted with serious qualifications. But whether he was a singer or not the hopes founded on this book were extravagant; he expected to make not only reputation by it, but a large amount of money, and money is not often made in England by poetry.
The book had an extraordinary success, greater, it may safely be said, than any first book of real poetry has ever had in England or indeed is ever likely to have: four editions were sold in a few weeks. Two of the Sonnets in the book were addressed to Ellen Terry, one as "Portia," the other as "Henrietta Maria"; and these partly account for the book's popularity, for Miss Terry was delighted with them and praised the book and its author to the skies. I reproduce the "Henrietta Maria" sonnet here as a fair specimen of the work:
QUEEN HENRIETTA MARIA
In the lone tent, waiting for victory, She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain, Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain: The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky, War's ruin, and the wreck of chivalry, To her proud soul no common fear can bring: Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord the King, Her soul aflame with passionate ecstasy. O Hair of Gold! O Crimson Lips! O Face! Made for the luring and the love of man! With thee I do forget the toil and stress, The loveless road that knows no resting-place, Time's straitened pulse, the soul's dread weariness, My freedom and my life republican.
Lyric poetry is by its excellence the chief art of England, as music is the art of Germany. A book of poetry is almost sure of fair appreciation in the English press which does not trouble to notice a "Sartor Resartus" or the first essays of an Emerson. The excessive consideration given to Oscar's book by the critics showed that already his personality and social success had affected the reporters.
The Athenaeum gave the book the place of honour in its number for the 23rd of July. The review was severe; but not unjust. "Mr. Wilde's volume of poems," it says, "may be regarded as the evangel of a new creed. From other gospels it differs in coming after, instead of before, the cult it seeks to establish.... We fail to see, however, that the apostle of the new worship has any distinct message."
The critic then took pains to prove that "nearly all the book is imitative" ... and concluded: "Work of this nature has no element of endurance."
The Saturday Review dismissed the book at the end of an article on "Recent Poetry" as "neither good nor bad." The reviewer objected in the English fashion to the sensual tone of the poems; but summed up fairly enough: "This book is not without traces of cleverness, but it is marred everywhere by imitation, insincerity, and bad taste."
At the same time the notices in Punch were extravagantly bitter, while of course the notices in The World, mainly written by Oscar's brother, were extravagantly eulogistic. Punch declared that "Mr. Wilde may be aesthetic, but he is not original ... a volume of echoes ... Swinburne and water."
Now what did The Athenaeum mean by taking a new book of imitative verse so seriously and talking of it as the "evangel of a new creed," besides suggesting that "it comes after the cult," and so forth?
It seems probable that The Athenaeum mistook Oscar Wilde for a continuator of the Pre-Raphaelite movement with the sub-conscious and peculiarly English suggestion that whatever is "aesthetic" or "artistic" is necessarily weak and worthless, if not worse.
Soon after Oscar left Oxford Punch began to caricature him and ridicule the cult of what it christened "The Too Utterly Utter." Nine Englishmen out of ten took delight in the savage contempt poured upon what was known euphemistically as "the aesthetic craze" by the pet organ of the English middle class.
This was the sort of thing Punch published under the title of "A Poet's Day":
"Oscar at Breakfast! Oscar at Luncheon!! Oscar at Dinner!!! Oscar at Supper!!!!"
"'You see I am, after all, mortal,' remarked the poet, with an ineffable affable smile, as he looked up from an elegant but substantial dish of ham and eggs. Passing a long willowy hand through his waving hair, he swept away a stray curl-paper, with the nonchalance of a D'Orsay.
"After this effort Mr. Wilde expressed himself as feeling somewhat faint; and with a half apologetic smile ordered another portion of Ham and Eggs."
Punch's verses on the subject were of the same sort, showing spite rather than humour. Under the heading of "Sage Green" (by a fading-out AEsthete) it published such stuff as this:
My love is as fair as a lily flower. (The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen!) Oh, bright are the blooms in her maiden bower. (Sing Hey! Sing Ho! for the sweet Sage Green!)
* * * * *
And woe is me that I never may win; (The Peacock blue has a sacred sheen!) For the Bard's hard up, and she's got no tin. (Sing Hey! Sing Ho! for the sweet Sage Green!)
Taking the criticism as a whole it would be useless to deny that there is an underlying assumption of vicious sensuality in the poet which is believed to be reflected in the poetry. This is the only way to explain the condemnation which is much more bitter than the verse deserves.
The poems gave Oscar pocket money for a season; increased too his notoriety; but did him little or no good with the judicious: there was not a memorable word or a new cadence, or a sincere cry in the book. Still, first volumes of poetry are as a rule imitative and the attempt, if inferior to "Venus and Adonis," was not without interest.
Oscar was naturally disappointed with the criticism, but the sales encouraged him and the stir the book made and he was as determined as ever to succeed. What was to be done next?
 His own words in "De Profundis."
 In her "Recollections" Miss Terry says that she was more impressed by the genius of Oscar Wilde and of Whistler than by that of any other men.
The first round in the battle with Fate was inconclusive. Oscar Wilde had managed to get known and talked about and had kept his head above water for a couple of years while learning something about life and more about himself. On the other hand he had spent almost all his patrimony, had run into some debt besides; yet seemed as far as ever from earning a decent living. The outlook was disquieting.
Even as a young man Oscar had a very considerable understanding of life. He could not make his way as a journalist, the English did not care for his poetry; but there was still the lecture-platform. In his heart he knew that he could talk better than he wrote.
He got his brother to announce boldly in The World that owing to the "astonishing success of his 'Poems' Mr. Oscar Wilde had been invited to lecture in America."
The invitation was imaginary; but Oscar had resolved to break into this new field; there was money in it, he felt sure.
Besides he had another string to his bow. When the first rumblings of the social storm in Russia reached England, our aristocratic republican seized occasion by the forelock and wrote a play on the Nihilist Conspiracy called Vera. This drama was impregnated with popular English liberal sentiment. With the interest of actuality about it Vera was published in September, 1880; but fell flat.
The assassination of the Tsar Alexander, however, in March, 1881; the way Oscar's poems published in June of that year were taken up by Miss Terry and puffed in the press, induced Mrs. Bernard Beere, an actress of some merit, to accept Vera for the stage. It was suddenly announced that Vera would be put on by Mrs. Bernard Beere at The Adelphi in December, '81; but the author had to be content with this advertisement. December came and went and Vera was not staged. It seemed probable to Oscar that it might be accepted in America; at any rate, there could be no harm in trying: he sailed for New York.
It was on the cards that he might succeed in his new adventure. The taste of America in letters and art is still strongly influenced, if not formed, by English taste, and, if Oscar Wilde had been properly accredited, it is probable that his extraordinary gift of speech would have won him success in America as a lecturer.
His phrase to the Revenue officers on landing: "I have nothing to declare except my genius," turned the limelight full upon him and excited comment and discussion all over the country. But the fuglemen of his caste whose praise had brought him to the front in England were almost unrepresented in the States, and never bold enough to be partisans. Oscar faced the American Philistine public without his accustomed claque, and under these circumstances a half-success was evidence of considerable power. His subjects were "The English Renaissance" and "House Decoration."
His first lecture at Chickering Hall on January 9, 1882, was so much talked about that the famous impresario, Major Pond, engaged him for a tour which, however, had to be cut short in the middle as a monetary failure. The Nation gave a very fair account of his first lecture: "Mr. Wilde is essentially a foreign product and can hardly succeed in this country. What he has to say is not new, and his extravagance is not extravagant enough to amuse the average American audience. His knee-breeches and long hair are good as far as they go; but Bunthorne has really spoiled the public for Wilde."
The Nation underrated American curiosity. Oscar lectured some ninety times from January till July, when he returned to New York. The gross receipts amounted to some L4,000: he received about L1,200, which left him with a few hundreds above his expenses. His optimism regarded this as a triumph.
One is fain to confess today that these lectures make very poor reading. There is not a new thought in them; not even a memorable expression; they are nothing but student work, the best passages in them being mere paraphrases of Pater and Arnold, though the titles were borrowed from Whistler. Dr. Ernest Bendz in his monograph on The Influence of Pater and Matthew Arnold in the Prose-Writings of Oscar Wilde has established this fact with curious erudition and completeness.
Still, the lecturer was a fine figure of a man: his knee-breeches and silk stockings set all the women talking, and he spoke with suave authority. Even the dullest had to admit that his elocution was excellent, and the manner of speech is keenly appreciated in America. In some of the Eastern towns, in New York especially, he had a certain success, the success of sensation and of novelty, such success as every large capital gives to the strange and eccentric.
In Boston he scored a triumph of character. Fifty or sixty Harvard students came to his lecture dressed to caricature him in "swallow tail coats, knee breeches, flowing wigs and green ties. They all wore large lilies in their buttonholes and each man carried a huge sunflower as he limped along." That evening Oscar appeared in ordinary dress and went on with his lecture as if he had not noticed the rudeness. The chief Boston paper gave him due credit:
"Everyone who witnessed the scene on Tuesday evening must feel about it very much as we do, and those who came to scoff, if they did not exactly remain to pray, at least left the Music Hall with feelings of cordial liking, and, perhaps to their own surprise, of respect for Oscar Wilde."
As he travelled west to Louisville and Omaha his popularity dwined and dwindled. Still he persevered and after leaving the States visited Canada, reaching Halifax in the autumn.
One incident must find a place here. On September 6 he sent L80 to Lady Wilde. I have been told that this was merely a return of money she had advanced; but there can be no doubt that Oscar, unlike his brother Willie, helped his mother again and again most generously, though Willie was always her favourite.
Oscar returned to England in April, 1883, and lectured to the Art Students at their club in Golden Square. This at once brought about a break with Whistler who accused him of plagiarism:—"Picking from our platters the plums for the puddings he peddles in the provinces."
If one compares this lecture with Oscar's on "The English Renaissance of Art," delivered in New York only a year before, and with Whistler's well-known opinions, it is impossible not to admit that the charge was justified. Such phrases as "artists are not to copy beauty but to create it ... a picture is a purely decorative thing," proclaim their author.
The long newspaper wrangle between the two was brought to a head in 1885, when Whistler gave his famous Ten o'clock discourse on Art. This lecture was infinitely better than any of Oscar Wilde's. Twenty odd years older than Wilde, Whistler was a master of all his resources: he was not only witty, but he had new views on art and original ideas. As a great artist he knew that "there never was an artistic period. There never was an Art-loving nation." Again and again he reached pure beauty of expression. The masterly persiflage, too, filled me with admiration and I declared that the lecture ranked with the best ever heard in London with Coleridge's on Shakespeare and Carlyle's on Heroes. To my astonishment Oscar would not admit the superlative quality of Whistler's talk; he thought the message paradoxical and the ridicule of the professors too bitter. "Whistler's like a wasp," he cried, "and carries about with him a poisoned sting." Oscar's kindly sweet nature revolted against the disdainful aggressiveness of Whistler's attitude. Besides, in essence, Whistler's lecture was an attack on the academic theory taught in the universities, and defended naturally by a young scholar like Oscar Wilde. Whistler's view that the artist was sporadic, a happy chance, a "sport," in fact, was a new view, and Oscar had not yet reached this level; he reviewed the master in the Pall Mall Gazette, a review remarkable for one of the earliest gleams of that genial humour which later became his most characteristic gift: "Whistler," he said, "is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting in my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs."
Whistler retorted in The World and Oscar replied, but Whistler had the best of the argument.... "Oscar—the amiable, irresponsible, esurient Oscar—with no more sense of a picture than of the fit of a coat, has the courage of the opinions ... of others!"
It should be noted here that one of the bitterest of tongues could not help doing homage to Oscar Wilde's "amiability": Whistler even preferred to call him "amiable and irresponsible" rather than give his plagiarism a harsher attribute.
Oscar Wilde learned almost all he knew of art and of controversy from Whistler, but he was never more than a pupil in either field; for controversy in especial he was poorly equipped: he had neither the courage, nor the contempt, nor the joy in conflict of his great exemplar.
Unperturbed by Whistler's attacks, Oscar went on lecturing about the country on "Personal Impressions of America," and in August crossed again to New York to see his play "Vera" produced by Marie Prescott at the Union Square Theatre. It was a complete failure, as might have been expected; the serious part of it was such as any talented young man might have written. Nevertheless I find in this play for the first time, a characteristic gleam of humour, an unexpected flirt of wing, so to speak, which, in view of the future, is full of promise. At the time it passed unappreciated.
September, 1883, saw Oscar again in England. The platform gave him better results than the theatre, but not enough for freedom or ease. It is the more to his credit that as soon as he got a couple of hundred pounds ahead, he resolved to spend it in bettering his mind.
His longing for wider culture, and perhaps in part, the example of Whistler, drove him to Paris. He put up at the little provincial Hotel Voltaire on the Quai Voltaire and quickly made acquaintance with everyone of note in the world of letters, from Victor Hugo to Paul Bourget. He admired Verlaine's genius to the full but the grotesque physical ugliness of the man himself (Verlaine was like a masque of Socrates) and his sordid and unclean way of living prevented Oscar from really getting to know him. During this stay in Paris Oscar read enormously and his French, which had been school-boyish, became quite good. He always said that Balzac, and especially his poet, Lucien de Rubempre, had been his teachers.
While in Paris he completed his blank-verse play, "The Duchess of Padua," and sent it to Miss Mary Anderson in America, who refused it, although she had commissioned him, he always said, to write it. It seems to me inferior even to "Vera" in interest, more academic and further from life, and when produced in New York in 1891 it was a complete frost.
In a few months Oscar Wilde had spent his money and had skimmed the cream from Paris, as he thought; accordingly he returned to London and took rooms again, this time in Charles Street, Mayfair. He had learned some rude lessons in the years since leaving Oxford, and the first and most impressive lesson was the fear of poverty. Yet his taking rooms in the fashionable part of town showed that he was more determined than ever to rise and not to sink.
It was Lady Wilde who urged him to take rooms near her; she never doubted his ultimate triumph. She knew all his poems by heart, took the strass for diamonds and welcomed the chance of introducing her brilliant son to the Irish Nationalist Members and other pinchbeck celebrities who flocked about her.
It was about this time that I first saw Lady Wilde. I was introduced to her by Willie, Oscar's elder brother, whom I had met in Fleet Street. Willie was then a tall, well-made fellow of thirty or thereabouts with an expressive taking face, lit up with a pair of deep blue laughing eyes. He had any amount of physical vivacity, and told a good story with immense verve, without for a moment getting above the commonplace: to him the Corinthian journalism of The Daily Telegraph was literature. Still he had the surface good nature and good humour of healthy youth and was generally liked. He took me to his mother's house one afternoon; but first he had a drink here and a chat there so that we did not reach the West End till after six o'clock.
The room and its occupants made an indelible grotesque impression on me. It seemed smaller than it was because overcrowded with a score of women and half a dozen men. It was very dark and there were empty tea-cups and cigarette ends everywhere. Lady Wilde sat enthroned behind the tea-table looking like a sort of female Buddha swathed in wraps—a large woman with a heavy face and prominent nose; very like Oscar indeed, with the same sallow skin which always looked dirty; her eyes too were her redeeming feature—vivacious and quick-glancing as a girl's. She "made up" like an actress and naturally preferred shadowed gloom to sunlight. Her idealism came to show as soon as she spoke. It was a necessity of her nature to be enthusiastic; unfriendly critics said hysterical, but I should prefer to say high-falutin' about everything she enjoyed or admired. She was at her best in misfortune; her great vanity gave her a certain proud stoicism which was admirable.
The Land League was under discussion as we entered, and Parnell's attitude to it. Lady Wilde regarded him as the predestined saviour of her country. "Parnell," she said with a strong accent on the first syllable, "is the man of destiny; he will strike off the fetters and free Ireland, and throne her as Queen among the nations."
A murmur of applause came from a thin bird-like woman standing opposite, who floated towards us clad in a sage-green gown, which sheathed her like an umbrella case; had she had any figure the dress would have been indecent.
"How like 'Speranza'!" she cooed, "dear Lady Wilde!" I noticed that her glance went towards Willie, who was standing on the other side of his mother, talking to a tall, handsome girl. Willie's friend seemed amused at the lyrical outburst of the green spinster, for smiling a little she questioned him:
"'Speranza' is Lady Wilde?" she asked with a slight American accent.
Lady Wilde informed the company with all the impressiveness she had at command that she did not expect Oscar that afternoon; "he is so busy with his new poems, you know; they say there has been no such sensation since Byron," she added; "already everyone is talking of them."
"Indeed, yes," sighed the green lily, "do you remember, dear Speranza, what he said about 'The Sphinx,' that he read to us. He told us the written verse was quite different from what the printed poem would be just as the sculptor's clay model differs from the marble. Subtle, wasn't it?"
"Perfectly true, too!" cried a man, with a falsetto voice, moving into the circle; "Leonardo himself might have said that."
The whole scene seemed to me affected and middle-class, untidy, too, with an un-English note about it of shiftlessness; the aesthetic dresses were extravagant, the enthusiasms pumped up and exaggerated. I was glad to leave quietly.
It was on this visit to Lady Wilde, or a later one, that I first heard of that other poem of Oscar, "The Harlot's House," which was also said to have been written in Paris. Though published in an obscure sheet and in itself commonplace enough it made an astonishing stir. Time and advertisement had been working for him. Academic lectures and imitative poetry alike had made him widely known; and, thanks to the small body of enthusiastic admirers whom I have already spoken of, his reputation instead of waning out had grown like the Jinn when released from the bottle.
The fuglemen were determined to find something wonderful in everything he did, and the title of "The Harlot's House," shocking Philistinism, gave them a certain opportunity which they used to the uttermost. On all sides one was asked: "Have you seen Oscar's latest?" And then the last verse would be quoted:—"Divine, don't ye think?"
"And down the long and silent street, The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet, Crept like a frightened girl."
In spite of all this extravagant eulogy Oscar Wilde's early plays and poems, like his lectures, were unimportant. The small remnant of people in England who really love the things of the spirit were disappointed in them, failed to find in them the genius so loudly and so arrogantly vaunted.
But, if Oscar Wilde's early writings were failures, his talk was more successful than ever. He still tried to show off on all occasions and sometimes fell flat in consequence; but his failures in this field were few and merely comparative; constant practice was ripening his extraordinary natural gift. About this time, too, he began to develop that humorous vein in conversation, which later lent a singular distinction to his casual utterances.
His talk brought him numerous invitations to dinner and lunch and introduced him to some of the best houses in London, but it produced no money. He was earning very little and he needed money, comparatively large sums of money, from week to week.
Oscar Wilde was extravagant in almost every possible way. He wished to be well-fed, well-dressed, well-wined, and prodigal of "tips." He wanted first editions of the poets; had a liking for old furniture and old silver, for fine pictures, Eastern carpets and Renascence bronzes; in fine, he had all the artist's desires as well as those of the poet and viveur. He was constantly in dire need of cash and did not hesitate to borrow fifty pounds from anyone who would lend it to him. He was beginning to experience the truth of the old verse:
'Tis a very good world to live in, To lend or to spend or to give in, But to beg or to borrow or get a man's own, 'Tis the very worst world that ever was known.
The difficulties of life were constantly increasing upon him. He despised bread and butter and talked only of champagne and caviare; but without bread, hunger is imminent. Victory no longer seemed indubitable. It was possible, it began even to be probable that the fair ship of his fame might come to wreck on the shoals of poverty.
It was painfully clear that he must do something without further delay, must either conquer want or overleap it. Would he bridle his desires, live savingly, and write assiduously till such repute came as would enable him to launch out and indulge his tastes? He was wise enough to see the advantages of such a course. Every day his reputation as a talker was growing. Had he had a little more self-control, had he waited a little longer till his position in society was secured, he could easily have married someone with money and position who would have placed him above sordid care and fear for ever. But he could not wait; he was colossally vain; he would wear the peacock's feathers at all times and all costs: he was intensely pleasure-loving, too; his mouth watered for every fruit. Besides, he couldn't write with creditors at the door. Like Bossuet he was unable to work when bothered about small economies:—s'il etait a l'etroit dans son domestique.
What was to be done? Suddenly he cut the knot and married the daughter of a Q.C., a Miss Constance Lloyd, a young lady without any particular qualities or beauty, whom he had met in Dublin on a lecture tour. Miss Lloyd had a few hundreds a year of her own, just enough to keep the wolf from the door. The couple went to live in Tite Street, Chelsea, in a modest little house. The drawing-room, however, was decorated by Godwin and quickly gained a certain notoriety. It was indeed a charming room with an artistic distinction and appeal of its own.
As soon as the dreadful load of poverty was removed, Oscar began to go about a great deal, and his wife would certainly have been invited with him if he had refused invitations addressed to himself alone; but from the beginning he accepted them and consequently after the first few months of marriage his wife went out but little, and later children came and kept her at home. Having earned a respite from care by his marriage, Oscar did little for the next three years but talk. Critical observers began to make up their minds that he was a talker and not a writer. "He was a power in the art," as de Quincey said of Coleridge; "and he carried a new art into the power." Every year this gift grew with him: every year he talked more and more brilliantly, and he was allowed now, and indeed expected, to hold the table.
In London there is no such thing as conversation. Now and then one hears a caustic or witty phrase, but nothing more. The tone of good society everywhere is to be pleasant without being prominent. In every other European country, however, able men are encouraged to talk; in England alone they are discouraged. People in society use a debased jargon or slang, snobbish shibboleths for the most part, and the majority resent any one man monopolising attention. But Oscar Wilde was allowed this privileged position, was encouraged to hold forth to amuse people, as singers are brought in to sing after dinner.
Though his fame as a witty and delightful talker grew from week to week, even his marriage did not stifle the undertone of dislike and disgust. Now indignantly, now with contempt, men spoke of him as abandoned, a creature of unnatural viciousness. There were certain houses in the best set of London society the doors of which were closed to him.
 By way of heaping coals of fire on the students' heads Oscar presented a cast of the Hermes (then recently unearthed) to the University of Harvard.
 Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."
From 1884 on I met Oscar Wilde continually, now at the theatre, now in some society drawing room; most often, I think, at Mrs. Jeune's (afterwards Lady St. Helier). His appearance was not in his favour; there was something oily and fat about him that repelled me. Naturally being British-born and young I tried to give my repugnance a moral foundation; fleshly indulgence and laziness, I said to myself, were written all over him. The snatches of his monologues which I caught from time to time seemed to me to consist chiefly of epigrams almost mechanically constructed of proverbs and familiar sayings turned upside down. Two of Balzac's characters, it will be remembered, practised this form of humour. The desire to astonish and dazzle, the love of the uncommon for its own sake, was so evident that I shrugged my shoulders and avoided him. One evening, however, at Mrs. Jeune's, I got to know him better. At the very door Mrs. Jeune came up to me:
"Have you ever met Mr. Oscar Wilde? You ought to know him: he is so delightfully clever, so brilliant!"
I went with her and was formally introduced to him. He shook hands in a limp way I disliked; his hands were flabby, greasy; his skin looked bilious and dirty. He wore a great green scarab ring on one finger. He was over-dressed rather than well-dressed; his clothes fitted him too tightly; he was too stout. He had a trick which I noticed even then, which grew on him later, of pulling his jowl with his right hand as he spoke, and his jowl was already fat and pouchy. His appearance filled me with distaste. I lay stress on this physical repulsion, because I think most people felt it, and in itself, it is a tribute to the fascination of the man that he should have overcome the first impression so completely and so quickly. I don't remember what we talked about, but I noticed almost immediately that his grey eyes were finely expressive; in turn vivacious, laughing, sympathetic; always beautiful. The carven mouth, too, with its heavy, chiselled, purple-tinged lips, had a certain attraction and significance in spite of a black front tooth which shocked one when he laughed. He was over six feet in height and both broad and thick-set; he looked like a Roman Emperor of the decadence.
We had a certain interest in each other, an interest of curiosity, for I remember that he led the way almost at once into the inner drawing room in order to be free to talk in some seclusion. After half an hour or so I asked him to lunch next day at The Cafe Royal, then the best restaurant in London.
At this time he was a superb talker, more brilliant than any I have ever heard in England, but nothing like what he became later. His talk soon made me forget his repellant physical peculiarities; indeed I soon lost sight of them so completely that I have wondered since how I could have been so disagreeably affected by them at first sight. There was an extraordinary physical vivacity and geniality in the man, an extraordinary charm in his gaiety, and lightning-quick intelligence. His enthusiasms, too, were infectious. Every mental question interested him, especially if it had anything to do with art or literature. His whole face lit up as he spoke and one saw nothing but his soulful eyes, heard nothing but his musical tenor voice; he was indeed what the French call a charmeur.
In ten minutes I confessed to myself that I liked him, and his talk was intensely quickening. He had something unexpected to say on almost every subject. His mind was agile and powerful and he took a delight in using it. He was well-read too, in several languages, especially in French, and his excellent memory stood him in good stead. Even when he merely reproduced what the great writers had said perfectly, he added a new colouring. And already his characteristic humour was beginning to illumine every topic with lambent flashes.
It was at our first lunch, I think, that he told me he had been asked by Harper's to write a book of one hundred thousand words and offered a large sum for it—I think some five thousand dollars—in advance. He wrote to them gravely that there were not one hundred thousand words in English, so he could not undertake the work, and laughed merrily like a child at the cheeky reproof.
"I have sent their letters and my reply to the press," he added, and laughed again, while probing me with inquisitive eyes: how far did I understand the need of self-advertisement?
About this time an impromptu of his moved the town to laughter. At some dinner party it appeared the ladies sat a little too long; Oscar wanted to smoke. Suddenly the hostess drew his attention to a lamp the shade of which was smouldering.
"Please put it out, Mr. Wilde," she said, "it's smoking."
Oscar turned to do as he was told with the remark:
The delightful impertinence had an extraordinary success.
Early in our friendship I was fain to see that the love of the uncommon, his paradoxes and epigrams were natural to him, sprang immediately from his taste and temperament. Perhaps it would be well to define once for all his attitude towards life with more scope and particularity than I have hitherto done.
It is often assumed that he had no clear and coherent view of life, no belief, no faith to guide his vagrant footsteps; but such an opinion does him injustice. He had his own philosophy, and held to it for long years with astonishing tenacity. His attitude towards life can best be seen if he is held up against Goethe. He took the artist's view of life which Goethe was the first to state and indeed in youth had overstated with an astonishing persuasiveness: "the beautiful is more than the good," said Goethe; "for it includes the good."
It seemed to Oscar, as it had seemed to young Goethe, that "the extraordinary alone survives"; the extraordinary whether good or bad; he therefore sought after the extraordinary, and naturally enough often fell into the extravagant. But how stimulating it was in London, where sordid platitudes drip and drizzle all day long, to hear someone talking brilliant paradoxes.
Goethe did not linger long in the halfway house of unbelief; the murderer may win notoriety as easily as the martyr, but his memory will not remain. "The fashion of this world passeth away," said Goethe, "I would fain occupy myself with that which endures." Midway in life Goethe accepted Kant's moral imperative and restated his creed: "A man must resolve to live," he said, "for the Good, and Beautiful, and for the Common Weal."
Oscar did not push his thought so far: the transcendental was not his field.
It was a pity, I sometimes felt, that he had not studied German as thoroughly as French; Goethe might have done more for him than Baudelaire or Balzac, for in spite of all his stodgy German faults, Goethe is the best guide through the mysteries of life whom the modern world has yet produced. Oscar Wilde stopped where the religion of Goethe began; he was far more of a pagan and individualist than the great German; he lived for the beautiful and extraordinary, but not for the Good and still less for the Whole; he acknowledged no moral obligation; in commune bonis was an ideal which never said anything to him; he cared nothing for the common weal; he held himself above the mass of the people with an Englishman's extravagant insularity and aggressive pride. Politics, social problems, religion—everything interested him simply as a subject of art; life itself was merely material for art. He held the position Goethe had abandoned in youth.
The view was astounding in England and new everywhere in its onesidedness. Its passionate exaggeration, however, was quickening, and there is, of course, something to be said for it. The artistic view of life is often higher than the ordinary religious view; at least it does not deal in condemnations and exclusions; it is more reasonable, more catholic, more finely perceptive.
"The artist's view of life is the only possible one," Oscar used to say, "and should be applied to everything, most of all to religion and morality. Cavaliers and Puritans are interesting for their costumes and not for their convictions....
"There is no general rule of health; it is all personal, individual.... I only demand that freedom which I willingly concede to others. No one condemns another for preferring green to gold. Why should any taste be ostracised? Liking and disliking are not under our control. I want to choose the nourishment which suits my body and my soul."
I can almost hear him say the words with his charming humorous smile and exquisite flash of deprecation, as if he were half inclined to make fun of his own statement.
It was not his views on art, however, which recommended him to the aristocratic set in London; but his contempt for social reform, or rather his utter indifference to it, and his English love of inequality. The republicanism he flaunted in his early verses was not even skin deep; his political beliefs and prejudices were the prejudices of the English governing class and were all in favour of individual freedom, or anarchy under the protection of the policeman.
"The poor are poor creatures," was his real belief, "and must always be hewers of wood and drawers of water. They are merely the virgin soil out of which men of genius and artists grow like flowers. Their function is to give birth to genius and nourish it. They have no other raison d'etre. Were men as intelligent as bees, all gifted individuals would be supported by the community, as the bees support their queen. We should be the first charge on the state just as Socrates declared that he should be kept in the Prytaneum at the public expense.
"Don't talk to me, Frank, about the hardships of the poor. The hardships of the poor are necessities, but talk to me of the hardships of men of genius, and I could weep tears of blood. I was never so affected by any book in my life as I was by the misery of Balzac's poet, Lucien de Rubempre."
Naturally this creed of an exaggerated individualism appealed peculiarly to the best set in London. It was eminently aristocratic and might almost be defended as scientific, for to a certain extent it found corroboration in Darwinism. All progress according to Darwin comes from peculiar individuals; "sports" as men of science call them, or the "heaven-sent" as rhetoricians prefer to style them. The many are only there to produce more "sports" and ultimately to benefit by them. All this is valid enough; but it leaves the crux of the question untouched. The poor in aristocratic England are too degraded to produce "sports" of genius, or indeed any "sports" of much value to humanity. Such an extravagant inequality of condition obtains there that the noble soul is miserable, the strongest insecure. But Wilde's creed was intensely popular with the "Smart Set" because of its very one-sidedness, and he was hailed as a prophet partly because he defended the cherished prejudices of the "landed" oligarchy.
It will be seen from this that Oscar Wilde was in some danger of suffering from excessive popularity and unmerited renown. Indeed if he had loved athletic sports, hunting and shooting instead of art and letters, he might have been the selected representative of aristocratic England.
In addition to his own popular qualities a strong current was sweeping him to success. He was detested by the whole of the middle or shop-keeping class which in England, according to Matthew Arnold, has "the sense of conduct—and has but little else." This class hated and feared him; feared him for his intellectual freedom and his contempt of conventionality, and hated him because of his light-hearted self-indulgence, and also because it saw in him none of its own sordid virtues. Punch is peculiarly the representative of this class and of all English prejudices, and Punch jeered at him now in prose, now in verse, week after week. Under the heading, "More Impressions" (by Oscuro Wildgoose) I find this:
"My little fancy's clogged with gush, My little lyre is false in tone, And when I lyrically moan, I hear the impatient critic's 'Tush!'
"But I've 'Impressions.' These are grand! Mere dabs of words, mere blobs of tint, Displayed on canvas or in print, Men laud, and think they understand.
"A smudge of brown, a smear of yellow, No tale, no subject,—there you are! Impressions!—and the strangest far Is—that the bard's a clever fellow."
A little later these lines appeared:
"My languid lily, my lank limp lily, My long, lithe lily-love, men may grin— Say that I'm soft and supremely silly— What care I, while you whisper still; What care I, while you smile? Not a pin! While you smile, while you whisper— 'Tis sweet to decay! I have watered with chlorodine, tears of chagrin, The churchyard mould I have planted thee in, Upside down, in an intense way, In a rough red flower-pot, sweeter than sin, That I bought for a halfpenny, yesterday!"
The italics are mine; but the suggestion was always implicit; yet this constant wind of puritanic hatred blowing against him helped instead of hindering his progress: strong men are made by opposition; like kites they go up against the wind.
"Believe me, child, all the gentleman's misfortunes arose from his being educated at a public school...."—FIELDING.
In England success is a plant of slow growth. The tone of good society, though responsive to political talent, and openly, eagerly sensitive to money-making talent, is contemptuous of genius and rates the utmost brilliancy of the talker hardly higher than the feats of an acrobat. Men are obstinate, slow, trusting a bank-balance rather than brains; and giving way reluctantly to sharp-witted superiority. The road up to power or influence in England is full of pitfalls and far too arduous for those who have neither high birth nor wealth to help them. The natural inequality of men instead of being mitigated by law or custom is everywhere strengthened and increased by a thousand effete social distinctions. Even in the best class where a certain easy familiarity reigns there is circle above circle, and the summits are isolated by heredity.
The conditions of English society being what they are, it is all but impossible at first to account for the rapidity of Oscar Wilde's social success; yet if we tell over his advantages and bring one or two into the account which have not yet been reckoned, we shall find almost every element that conduces to popularity. By talent and conviction he was the natural pet of the aristocracy whose selfish prejudices he defended and whose leisure he amused. The middle class, as has been noted, disliked and despised him: but its social influence is small and its papers, and especially Punch, made him notorious by attacking him in and out of season. The comic weekly, indeed, helped to build up his reputation by the almost inexplicable bitterness of its invective.
Another potent force was in his favour. From the beginning he set himself to play the game of the popular actor, and neglected no opportunity of turning the limelight on his own doings. As he said, his admiration of himself was "a lifelong devotion," and he proclaimed his passion on the housetops.
Our names happened to be mentioned together once in some paper, I think it was The Pall Mall Gazette. He asked me what I was going to reply.
"Nothing," I answered, "why should I bother? I've done nothing yet that deserves trumpeting."
"You're making a mistake," he said seriously. "If you wish for reputation and fame in this world, and success during your lifetime, you ought to seize every opportunity of advertising yourself. You remember the Latin word, 'Fame springs from one's own house.' Like other wise sayings, it's not quite true; fame comes from oneself," and he laughed delightedly; "you must go about repeating how great you are till the dull crowd comes to believe it."
"The prophet must proclaim himself, eh? and declare his own mission?"
"That's it," he replied with a smile; "that's it.
"Every time my name is mentioned in a paper, I write at once to admit that I am the Messiah. Why is Pears' soap successful? Not because it is better or cheaper than any other soap, but because it is more strenuously puffed. The journalist is my 'John the Baptist.' What would you give, when a book of yours comes out, to be able to write a long article drawing attention to it in The Pall Mall Gazette? Here you have the opportunity of making your name known just as widely; why not avail yourself of it? I miss no chance," and to do him justice he used occasion to the utmost.
Curiously enough Bacon had the same insight, and I have often wondered since whether Oscar's worldly wisdom was original or was borrowed from the great Elizabethan climber. Bacon says:
"'Boldly sound your own praises and some of them will stick.'... It will stick with the more ignorant and the populace, though men of wisdom may smile at it; and the reputation won with many will amply countervail the disdain of a few.... And surely no small number of those who are of solid nature, and who, from the want of this ventosity, cannot spread all sail in pursuit of their own honour, suffer some prejudice and lose dignity by their moderation."
Many of Oscar's letters to the papers in these years were amusing, some of them full of humour. For example, when he was asked to give a list of the hundred best books, as Lord Avebury and other mediocrities had done, he wrote saying that "he could not give a list of the hundred best books, as he had only written five."
Winged words of his were always passing from mouth to mouth in town. Some theatre was opened which was found horribly ugly: one spoke of it as "Early Victorian."
"No, no," replied Oscar, "nothing so distinctive. 'Early Maple,' rather."
Even his impertinences made echoes. At a great reception, a friend asked him in passing, how the hostess, Lady S——, could be recognised. Lady S—— being short and stout, Oscar replied, smiling:
"Go through this room, my dear fellow, and the next and so on till you come to someone looking like a public monument, say the effigy of Britannia or Victoria—that's Lady S——."
Though he used to pretend that all this self-advertisement was premeditated and planned, I could hardly believe him. He was eager to write about himself because of his exaggerated vanity and reflection afterwards found grounds to justify his inclination. But whatever the motive may have been the effect was palpable: his name was continually in men's mouths, and his fame grew by repetition. As Tiberius said of Mucianus:
"Omnium quae dixerat feceratque, arte quadam ostentator" (He had a knack of showing off and advertising whatever he said or did).
But no personal qualities, however eminent, no gifts, no graces of heart or head or soul could have brought a young man to Oscar Wilde's social position and popularity in a few years.
Another cause was at work lifting him steadily. From the time he left Oxford he was acclaimed and backed by a small minority of passionate admirers whom I have called his fuglemen. These admirers formed the constant factor in his progress from social height to height. For the most part they were persons usually called "sexual inverts," who looked to the brilliancy of his intellect to gild their esoteric indulgence. This class in England is almost wholly recruited from the aristocracy and the upper middle-class that apes the "smart set." It is an inevitable product of the English boarding school and University system; indeed one of the most characteristic products. I shall probably bring upon myself a host of enemies by this assertion, but it has been weighed and must stand. Fielding has already put the same view on record: he says:
"A public school, Joseph, was the cause of all the calamities which he afterwards suffered. Public schools are the nurseries of all vice and immorality. All the wicked fellows whom I remember at the University were bred at them...."
If boarding-school life with its close intimacies between boys from twelve to eighteen years of age were understood by English mothers, it is safe to say that every boarding-house in every school would disappear in a single night, and Eton, Harrow, Winchester and the rest would be turned into day-schools.
Those who have learned bad habits at school or in the 'Varsity are inclined to continue the practices in later life. Naturally enough these men are usually distinguished by a certain artistic sympathy, and often by most attractive, intellectual qualities. As a rule the epicene have soft voices and ingratiating manners, and are bold enough to make a direct appeal to the heart and emotions; they are considered the very cream of London society.
These admirers and supporters praised and defended Oscar Wilde from the beginning with the persistence and courage of men who if they don't hang together are likely to hang separately. After his trial and condemnation The Daily Telegraph spoke with contempt of these "decadents" and "aesthetes" who, it asserted, "could be numbered in London society on the fingers of one hand"; but even The Daily Telegraph must have known that in the "smart set" alone there are hundreds of these acolytes whose intellectual and artistic culture gives them an importance out of all proportion to their number. It was the passionate support of these men in the first place which made Oscar Wilde notorious and successful.
This fact may well give pause to the thoughtful reader. In the middle ages, when birth and position had a disproportionate power in life, the Catholic Church supplied a certain democratic corrective to the inequality of social conditions. It was a sort of "Jacob's Ladder" leading from the lowest strata of society to the very heavens and offering to ingenuous, youthful talent a career of infinite hope and unlimited ambition. This great power of the Roman Church in the middle-ages may well be compared to the influence exerted by those whom I have designated as Oscar Wilde's fuglemen in the England of today. The easiest way to success in London society is to be notorious in this sense. Whatever career one may have chosen, however humble one's birth, one is then certain of finding distinguished friends and impassioned advocates. If you happen to be in the army and unmarried, you are declared to be a strategist like Caesar, or an organizer like Moltke; if you are an artist, instead of having your faults proclaimed and your failings scourged, your qualifications are eulogised and you find yourself compared to Michel Angelo or Titian! I would not willingly exaggerate here; but I could easily give dozens of instances to prove that sexual perversion is a "Jacob's Ladder" to most forms of success in our time in London.
It seems a curious effect of the great compensatory balance of things that a masculine rude people like the English, who love nothing so much as adventures and warlike achievements, should allow themselves to be steered in ordinary times by epicene aesthetes. But no one who knows the facts will deny that these men are prodigiously influential in London in all artistic and literary matters, and it was their constant passionate support which lifted Oscar Wilde so quickly to eminence.
From the beginning they fought for him. He was regarded as a leader among them when still at Oxford. Yet his early writings show no trace of such a prepossession; they are wholly void of offence, without even a suggestion of coarseness, as pure indeed as his talk. Nevertheless, as soon as his name came up among men in town, the accusation of abnormal viciousness was either made or hinted. Everyone spoke as if there were no doubt about his tastes, and this in spite of the habitual reticence of Englishmen. I could not understand how the imputation came to be so bold and universal; how so shameful a calumny, as I regarded it, was so firmly established in men's minds. Again and again I protested against the injustice, demanded proofs; but was met only by shrugs and pitying glances as if my prejudice must indeed be invincible if I needed evidence of the obvious.
I have since been assured, on what should be excellent authority, that the evil reputation which attached to Oscar Wilde in those early years in London was completely undeserved. I, too, must say that in the first period of our friendship, I never noticed anything that could give colour even to suspicion of him; but the belief in his abnormal tastes was widespread and dated from his life in Oxford.
From about 1886-7 on, however, there was a notable change in Oscar Wilde's manners and mode of life. He had been married a couple of years, two children had been born to him; yet instead of settling down he appeared suddenly to have become wilder. In 1887 he accepted the editorship of a lady's paper, The Woman's World, and was always mocking at the selection of himself as the "fittest" for such a post: he had grown noticeably bolder. I told myself that an assured income and position give confidence; but at bottom a doubt began to form in me. It can't be denied that from 1887-8 on, incidents occurred from time to time which kept the suspicion of him alive, and indeed pointed and strengthened it. I shall have to deal now with some of the more important of these occurrences.
The period of growth of any organism is the most interesting and most instructive. And there is no moment of growth in the individual life which can be compared in importance with the moment when a man begins to outtop his age, and to suggest the future evolution of humanity by his own genius. Usually this final stage is passed in solitude:
Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille, Sich ein Charakter in dem Strome der Welt.
After writing a life of Schiller which almost anyone might have written, Carlyle retired for some years to Craigenputtoch, and then brought forth Sartor Resartus, which was personal and soul-revealing to the verge of eccentricity. In the same way Wagner was a mere continuator of Weber in Lohengrin and Tannhaeuser, and first came to his own in the Meistersinger and Tristan, after years of meditation in Switzerland.
This period for Oscar Wilde began with his marriage; the freedom from sordid anxieties allowed him to lift up his head and be himself. Kepler, I think, it is who praises poverty as the foster-mother of genius; but Bernard Palissy was nearer the truth when he said:—Pauvrete empeche bons esprits de parvenir (poverty hinders fine minds from succeeding). There is no such mortal enemy of genius as poverty except riches: a touch of the spur from time to time does good; but a constant rowelling disables. As editor of The Woman's World Oscar had some money of his own to spend. Though his salary was only some six pounds a week, it made him independent, and his editorial work gave him an excuse for not exhausting himself by writing. For some years after marriage; in fact, till he lost his editorship, he wrote little and talked a great deal.
During this period we were often together. He lunched with me once or twice a week and I began to know his method of work. Everything came to him in the excitement of talk, epigrams, paradoxes and stories; and when people of great position or title were about him he generally managed to surpass himself: all social distinctions appealed to him intensely. I chaffed him about this one day and he admitted the snobbishness gaily.
"I love even historic names, Frank, as Shakespeare did. Surely everyone prefers Norfolk, Hamilton and Buckingham to Jones or Smith or Robinson."
As soon as he lost his editorship he took to writing for the reviews; his articles were merely the resume of his monologues. After talking for months at this and that lunch and dinner he had amassed a store of epigrams and humorous paradoxes which he could embody in a paper for The Fortnightly Review or The Nineteenth Century.
These papers made it manifest that Wilde had at length, as Heine phrased it, reached the topmost height of the culture of his time and was now able to say new and interesting things. His Lehrjahre or student-time may be said to have ended with his editorship. The articles which he wrote on "The Decay of Lying," "The Critic as Artist," and "Pen, Pencil and Poison"; in fact, all the papers which in 1891 were gathered together and published in book form under the title of "Intentions," had about them the stamp of originality. They achieved a noteworthy success with the best minds, and laid the foundation of his fame. Every paper contained, here and there, a happy phrase, or epigram, or flirt of humour, which made it memorable to the lover of letters.
They were all, however, conceived and written from the standpoint of the artist, and the artist alone, who never takes account of ethics, but uses right and wrong indifferently as colours of his palette. "The Decay of Lying" seemed to the ordinary, matter-of-fact Englishman a cynical plea in defence of mendacity. To the majority of readers, "Pen, Pencil and Poison" was hardly more than a shameful attempt to condone cold-blooded murder. The very articles which grounded his fame as a writer, helped to injure his standing and repute.
In 1889 he published a paper which did him even more damage by appearing to justify the peculiar rumours about his private life. He held the opinion, which was universal at that time, that Shakespeare had been abnormally vicious. He believed with the majority of critics that Lord William Herbert was addressed in the first series of Sonnets; but his fine sensibility or, if you will, his peculiar temperament, led him to question whether Thorpe's dedication to "Mr. W.H." could have been addressed to Lord William Herbert. He preferred the old hypothesis that the dedication was addressed to a young actor named Mr. William Hughes, a supposition which is supported by a well-known sonnet. He set forth this idea with much circumstance and considerable ingenuity in an article which he sent to me for publication in The Fortnightly Review. The theme was scabrous; but his treatment of it was scrupulously reserved and adroit and I saw no offence in the paper, and to tell the truth, no great ability in his handling of the subject.
He had talked over the article with me while he was writing it, and I told him that I thought the whole theory completely mistaken. Shakespeare was as sensual as one could well be; but there was no evidence of abnormal vice; indeed, all the evidence seemed to me to be against this universal belief. The assumption that the dedication was addressed to Lord William Herbert I had found it difficult to accept, at first; the wording of it is not only ambiguous but familiar. If I assumed that "Mr. W.H." was meant for Lord William Herbert, it was only because that seemed the easiest way out of the maze. In fine, I pointed out to Oscar that his theory had very little that was new in it, and more that was untrue, and advised him not to publish the paper. My conviction that Shakespeare was not abnormally vicious, and that the first series of Sonnets proved snobbishness and toadying and not corrupt passion, seemed to Oscar the very madness of partisanship.
He smiled away my arguments, and sent his paper to the Fortnightly office when I happened to be abroad. Much to my chagrin, my assistant rejected it rudely, whereupon Oscar sent it to Blackwoods, who published it in their magazine. It set everyone talking and arguing. To judge by the discussion it created, the wind of hatred and of praise it caused, one would have thought that the paper was a masterpiece, though in truth it was nothing out of the common. Had it been written by anybody else it would have passed unnoticed. But already Oscar Wilde had a prodigious notoriety, and all his sayings and doings were eagerly canvassed from one end of society to the other.
"The Portrait of Mr. W.H." did Oscar incalculable injury. It gave his enemies for the first time the very weapon they wanted, and they used it unscrupulously and untiringly with the fierce delight of hatred. Oscar seemed to revel in the storm of conflicting opinions which the paper called forth. He understood better than most men that notoriety is often the forerunner of fame and is always commercially more valuable. He rubbed his hands with delight as the discussion grew bitter, and enjoyed even the sneering of the envious. A wind that blows out a little fire, he knew, plays bellows to a big one. So long as people talked about him, he didn't much care what they said, and they certainly talked interminably about everything he wrote.
The inordinate popular success increased his self-confidence, and with time his assurance took on a touch of defiance. The first startling sign of this gradual change was the publication in Lippincott's Magazine of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It was attacked immediately in The Daily Chronicle, a liberal paper usually distinguished for a certain leaning in favour of artists and men of letters, as a "tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadents—a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction."
Oscar as a matter of course replied and the tone of his reply is characteristic of his growth in self-assurance: he no longer dreads the imputation of viciousness; he challenges it: "It is poisonous, if you like; but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at."
When Oscar republished "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in book form in April, 1891, he sent me a large paper copy and with the copy he wrote a little note, asking me to tell him what I thought of the book. I got the volume and note early one morning and read the book until noon. I then sent him a note by hand: "Other men," I wrote, "have given us wine; some claret, some burgundy, some Moselle; you are the first to give us pure champagne. Much of this book is wittier even than Congreve and on an equal intellectual level: at length, it seems to me, you have justified yourself."
Half an hour later I was told that Oscar Wilde had called. I went down immediately to see him. He was bubbling over with content.
"How charming of you, Frank," he cried, "to have written me such a divine letter."
"I have only read a hundred pages of the book," I said; "but they are delightful: no one now can deny you a place among the wittiest and most humorous writers in English."
"How wonderful of you, Frank; what do you like so much?"
Like all artists, he loved praise and I was enthusiastic, happy to have the opportunity of making up for some earlier doubting that now seemed unworthy:
"Whatever the envious may say, you're with Burke and Sheridan, among the very ablest Irishmen....
"Of course I have heard most of the epigrams from you before, but you have put them even better in this book."
"Do you think so, really?" he asked, smiling with pleasure.
It is worth notice that some of the epigrams in "Dorian Gray" were bettered again before they appeared in his first play. For example, in "Dorian Gray" Lord Henry Wotton, who is peculiarly Oscar's mouthpiece, while telling how he had to bargain for a piece of old brocade in Wardour Street, adds, "nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." In "Lady Windermere's Fan" the same epigram is perfected, "The cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
Nearly all the literary productions of our time suffer from haste: one must produce a good deal, especially while one's reputation is in the making, in order to live by one's pen. Yet great works take time to form, and fine creations are often disfigured by the stains of hurried parturition. Oscar Wilde contrived to minimise this disability by talking his works before writing them.
The conversation of Lord Henry Wotton with his uncle, and again at lunch when he wishes to fascinate Dorian Gray, is an excellent reproduction of Oscar's ordinary talk. The uncle wonders why Lord Dartmoor wants to marry an American and grumbles about her people: "Has she got any?"
Lord Henry shook his head. "American girls are as clever at concealing their parents as English women are at concealing their past," he said, rising to go.
"They are pork-packers, I suppose?"
"I hope so, Uncle George, for Dartmoor's sake. I am told that pork-packing is the most lucrative profession in America, after politics."
All this seems to me delightful humour.
The latter part of the book, however, tails off into insignificance. The first hundred pages held the result of months and months of Oscar's talk, the latter half was written offhand to complete the story. "Dorian Gray" was the first piece of work which proved that Oscar Wilde had at length found his true vein.
A little study of it discovers both his strength and his weakness as a writer. The initial idea of the book is excellent, finer because deeper than the commonplace idea that is the foundation of Balzac's "Peau de Chagrin," though it would probably never have been written if Balzac had not written his book first; but Balzac's sincerity and earnestness grapple with the theme and wring a blessing out of it, whereas the subtler idea in Oscar's hands dwindles gradually away till one wonders if the book would not have been more effective as a short story. Oscar did not know life well enough or care enough for character to write a profound psychological study: he was at his best in a short story or play.
One day about this time Oscar first showed me the aphorisms he had written as an introduction to "Dorian Gray." Several of them I thought excellent; but I found that Oscar had often repeated himself. I cut these repetitions out and tried to show him how much better the dozen best were than eighteen of which six were inferior. I added that I should like to publish the best in "The Fortnightly." He thanked me and said it was very kind of me.
Next morning I got a letter from him telling me that he had read over my corrections and thought that the aphorisms I had rejected were the best, but he hoped I'd publish them as he had written them.
Naturally I replied that the final judgment must rest with him and I published them at once.
The delight I felt in his undoubted genius and success was not shared by others. Friends took occasion to tell me that I should not go about with Oscar Wilde.
"Why not?" I asked.
"He has a bad name," was the reply. "Strange things are said about him. He came down from Oxford with a vile reputation. You have only got to look at the man."
"Whatever the disease may be," I replied, "it's not catching—unfortunately."
The pleasure men take in denigration of the gifted is one of the puzzles of life to those who are not envious.
Men of letters, even people who ought to have known better, were slow to admit his extraordinary talent; he had risen so quickly, had been puffed into such prominence that they felt inclined to deny him even the gifts which he undoubtedly possessed. I was surprised once to find a friend of mine taking this attitude: Francis Adams, the poet and writer, chaffed me one day about my liking for Oscar.
"What on earth can you see in him to admire?" he asked. "He is not a great writer, he is not even a good writer; his books have no genius in them; his poetry is tenth rate, and his prose is not much better. His talk even is fictitious and extravagant."
I could only laugh at him and advise him to read "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
This book, however, gave Oscar's puritanic enemies a better weapon against him than even "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." The subject, they declared, was the same as that of "Mr. W.H.," and the treatment was simply loathsome. More than one middle-class paper, such as To-Day in the hands of Mr. Jerome K. Jerome, condemned the book as "corrupt," and advised its suppression. Freedom of speech in England is more feared than licence of action: a speck on the outside of the platter disgusts your puritan, and the inside is never peeped at, much less discussed.
Walter Pater praised "Dorian Gray" in the Bookman; but thereby only did himself damage without helping his friend. Oscar meanwhile went about boldly, meeting criticism now with smiling contempt.
One incident from this time will show how unfairly he was being judged and how imprudent he was to front defamation with defiance.
One day I met a handsome youth in his company named John Gray, and I could not wonder that Oscar found him interesting, for Gray had not only great personal distinction, but charming manners and a marked poetic gift, a much greater gift than Oscar possessed. He had besides an eager, curious mind, and of course found extraordinary stimulus in Oscar's talk. It seemed to me that intellectual sympathy and the natural admiration which a younger man feels for a brilliant senior formed the obvious bond between them. But no sooner did Oscar republish "Dorian Gray" than ill-informed and worse-minded persons went about saying that the eponymous hero of the book was John Gray, though "Dorian Gray" was written before Oscar had met or heard of John Gray. One cannot help admitting that this was partly Oscar's own fault. In talk he often alluded laughingly to John Gray as his hero, "Dorian." It is just an instance of the challenging contempt which he began to use about this time in answer to the inventions of hatred.
Late in this year, 1891, he published four stories completely void of offence, calling the collection "A House of Pomegranates." He dedicated each of the tales to a lady of distinction and the book made many friends; but it was handled contemptuously in the press and had no sale.
By this time people expected a certain sort of book from Oscar Wilde and wanted nothing else. They hadn't to wait long. Early in 1892 we heard that Oscar had written a drama in French called Salome, and at once it was put about that Sarah Bernhardt was going to produce it in London. Then came dramatic surprise on surprise: while it was being rehearsed, the Lord Chamberlain refused to license it on the ground that it introduced Biblical characters. Oscar protested in a brilliant interview against the action of the Censor as "odious and ridiculous." He pointed out that all the greatest artists—painters and sculptors, musicians and writers—had taken many of their best subjects from the Bible, and wanted to know why the dramatist should be prevented from treating the great soul-tragedies most proper to his art. When informed that the interdict was to stand, he declared in a pet that he would settle in France and take out letters of naturalisation:
"I am not English. I am Irish—which is quite another thing." Of course the press made all the fun it could of his show of temper.
Mr. Robert Ross considers "Salome" "the most powerful and perfect of all Oscar's dramas." I find it almost impossible to explain, much less justify, its astonishing popularity. When it appeared, the press, both in France and in England, was critical and contemptuous; but by this time Oscar had so captured the public that he could afford to disdain critics and calumny. The play was praised by his admirers as if it had been a masterpiece, and London discussed it the more because it was in French and not clapper-clawed by the vulgar.
The indescribable cold lewdness and cruelty of "Salome" quickened the prejudice and strengthened the dislike of the ordinary English reader for its author. And when the drama was translated into English and published with the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, it was disparaged and condemned by all the leaders of literary opinion. The colossal popularity of the play, which Mr. Robert Ross proves so triumphantly, came from Germany and Russia and is to be attributed in part to the contempt educated Germans and Russians feel for the hypocritical vagaries of English prudery. The illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, too, it must be admitted, were an additional offence to the ordinary English reader, for they intensified the peculiar atmosphere of the drama.
Oscar used to say that he invented Aubrey Beardsley; but the truth is, it was Mr. Robert Ross who first introduced Aubrey to Oscar and persuaded him to commission the "Salome" drawings which gave the English edition its singular value. Strange to say, Oscar always hated the illustrations and would not have the book in his house. His dislike even extended to the artist, and as Aubrey Beardsley was of easy and agreeable intercourse, the mutual repulsion deserves a word of explanation.
Aubrey Beardsley's genius had taken London by storm. At seventeen or eighteen this auburn-haired, blue-eyed, fragile looking youth had reached maturity with his astounding talent, a talent which would have given him position and wealth in any other country. In perfection of line his drawings were superior to anything we possess. But the curious thing about the boy was that he expressed the passions of pride and lust and cruelty more intensely even than Rops, more spontaneously than anyone who ever held pencil. Beardsley's precocity was simply marvellous. He seemed to have an intuitive understanding not only of his own art but of every art and craft, and it was some time before one realised that he attained this miraculous virtuosity by an absolute disdain for every other form of human endeavour. He knew nothing of the great general or millionaire or man of science, and he cared as little for them as for fishermen or 'bus-drivers. The current of his talent ran narrow between stone banks, so to speak; it was the bold assertion of it that interested Oscar.
One phase of Beardsley's extraordinary development may be recorded here. When I first met him his letters, and even his talk sometimes, were curiously youthful and immature, lacking altogether the personal note of his drawings. As soon as this was noticed he took the bull by the horns and pretended that his style in writing was out of date; he wished us to believe that he hesitated to shock us with his "archaic sympathies." Of course we laughed and challenged him to reveal himself. Shortly afterwards I got an article from him written with curious felicity of phrase, in modish polite eighteenth-century English. He had reached personal expression in a new medium in a month or so, and apparently without effort. It was Beardsley's writing that first won Oscar to recognition of his talent, and for a while he seemed vaguely interested in what he called his "orchid-like personality."
They were both at lunch one day when Oscar declared that he could drink nothing but absinthe when Beardsley was present.
"Absinthe," he said, "is to all other drinks what Aubrey's drawings are to other pictures: it stands alone: it is like nothing else: it shimmers like southern twilight in opalescent colouring: it has about it the seduction of strange sins. It is stronger than any other spirit, and brings out the sub-conscious self in man. It is just like your drawings, Aubrey; it gets on one's nerves and is cruel.
"Baudelaire called his poems Fleurs du Mal, I shall call your drawings Fleurs du Peche—flowers of sin.
"When I have before me one of your drawings I want to drink absinthe, which changes colour like jade in sunlight and takes the senses thrall, and then I can live myself back in imperial Rome, in the Rome of the later Caesars."
"Don't forget the simple pleasures of that life, Oscar," said Aubrey; "Nero set Christians on fire, like large tallow candles; the only light Christians have ever been known to give," he added in a languid, gentle voice.
This talk gave me the key. In personal intercourse Oscar Wilde was more English than the English: he seldom expressed his opinion of person or prejudice boldly; he preferred to hint dislike and disapproval. His insistence on the naked expression of lust and cruelty in Beardsley's drawings showed me that direct frankness displeased him; for he could hardly object to the qualities which were making his own "Salome" world-famous.
The complete history of the relations between Oscar Wilde and Beardsley, and their mutual dislike, merely proves how difficult it is for original artists to appreciate one another: like mountain peaks they stand alone. Oscar showed a touch of patronage, the superiority of the senior, in his intercourse with Beardsley, and often praised him ineptly, whereas Beardsley to the last spoke of Oscar as a showman, and hoped drily that he knew more about literature than he did about art. For a moment, they worked in concert, and it is important to remember that it was Beardsley who influenced Oscar, and not Oscar who influenced Beardsley. Beardsley's contempt of critics and the public, his artistic boldness and self-assertion, had a certain hardening influence on Oscar: as things turned out a most unfortunate influence.
In spite of Mr. Robert Ross's opinion I regard "Salome," as a student work, an outcome of Oscar's admiration for Flaubert and his "Herodias," on the one hand, and "Les Sept Princesses," of Maeterlinck on the other. He has borrowed the colour and Oriental cruelty with the banquet-scene from the Frenchman, and from the Fleming the simplicity of language and the haunting effect produced by the repetition of significant phrases. Yet "Salome" is original through the mingling of lust and hatred in the heroine, and by making this extraordinary virgin the chief and centre of the drama Oscar has heightened the interest of the story and bettered Flaubert's design. I feel sure he copied Maeterlinck's simplicity of style because it served to disguise his imperfect knowledge of French and yet this very artlessness adds to the weird effect of the drama.
The lust that inspires the tragedy was characteristic, but the cruelty was foreign to Oscar; both qualities would have injured him in England, had it not been for two things. First of all only a few of the best class of English people know French at all well, and for the most part they disdain the sex-morality of their race; while the vast mass of the English public regard French as in itself an immoral medium and is inclined to treat anything in that tongue with contemptuous indifference. One can only say that "Salome" confirmed Oscar's growing reputation for abnormal viciousness.
It was in 1892 that some of Oscar's friends struck me for the first time as questionable, to say the best of them. I remember giving a little dinner to some men in rooms I had in Jermyn Street. I invited Oscar, and he brought a young friend with him. After dinner I noticed that the youth was angry with Oscar and would scarcely speak to him, and that Oscar was making up to him. I heard snatches of pleading from Oscar—"I beg of you.... It is not true.... You have no cause".... All the while Oscar was standing apart from the rest of us with an arm on the young man's shoulder; but his coaxing was in vain, the youth turned away with petulant, sullen ill-temper. This is a mere snap-shot which remained in my memory, and made me ask myself afterwards how I could have been so slow of understanding.
Looking back and taking everything into consideration—his social success, the glare of publicity in which he lived, the buzz of talk and discussion that arose about everything he did and said, the increasing interest and value of his work and, above all, the ever-growing boldness of his writing and the challenge of his conduct—it is not surprising that the black cloud of hate and slander which attended him persistently became more and more threatening.
 Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."
No season, it is said, is so beautiful as the brief northern summer. Three-fourths of the year is cold and dark, and the ice-bound landscape is swept by snowstorm and blizzard. Summer comes like a goddess; in a twinkling the snow vanishes and Nature puts on her robes of tenderest green; the birds arrive in flocks; flowers spring to life on all sides, and the sun shines by night as by day. Such a summertide, so beautiful and so brief, was accorded to Oscar Wilde before the final desolation.
I want to give a picture of him at the topmost height of happy hours, which will afford some proof of his magical talent of speech besides my own appreciation of it, and, fortunately, the incident has been given to me. Mr. Ernest Beckett, now Lord Grimthorpe, a lover of all superiorities, who has known the ablest men of the time, takes pleasure in telling a story which shows Oscar Wilde's influence over men who were anything but literary in their tastes. Mr. Beckett had a party of Yorkshire squires, chiefly fox-hunters and lovers of an outdoor life, at Kirkstall Grange when he heard that Oscar Wilde was in the neighbouring town of Leeds. Immediately he asked him to lunch at the Grange, chuckling to himself beforehand at the sensational novelty of the experiment. Next day "Mr. Oscar Wilde" was announced and as he came into the room the sportsmen forthwith began hiding themselves behind newspapers or moving together in groups in order to avoid seeing or being introduced to the notorious writer. Oscar shook hands with his host as if he had noticed nothing, and began to talk.
"In five minutes," Grimthorpe declares, "all the papers were put down and everyone had gathered round him to listen and laugh."
At the end of the meal one Yorkshireman after the other begged the host to follow the lunch with a dinner and invite them to meet the wonder again. When the party broke up in the small hours they all went away delighted with Oscar, vowing that no man ever talked more brilliantly. Grimthorpe cannot remember a single word Oscar said: "It was all delightful," he declares, "a play of genial humour over every topic that came up, like sunshine dancing on waves."
The extraordinary thing about Oscar's talent was that he did not monopolise the conversation: he took the ball of talk wherever it happened to be at the moment and played with it so humorously that everyone was soon smiling delightedly. The famous talkers of the past, Coleridge, Macaulay, Carlyle and the others, were all lecturers: talk to them was a discourse on a favourite theme, and in ordinary life they were generally regarded as bores. But at his best Oscar Wilde never dropped the tone of good society: he could afford to give place to others; he was equipped at all points: no subject came amiss to him: he saw everything from a humorous angle, and dazzled one now with word-wit, now with the very stuff of merriment.
Though he was the life and soul of every social gathering, and in constant demand, he still read omnivorously, and his mind naturally occupied itself with high themes.
For some years, the story of Jesus fascinated him and tinged all his thought. We were talking about Renan's "Life" one day: a wonderful book he called it, one of the three great biographies of the world, Plato's dialogues with Socrates as hero and Boswell's "Life of Johnson" being the other two. It was strange, he thought, that the greatest man had written the worst biography; Plato made of Socrates a mere phonograph, into which he talked his own theories: Renan did better work, and Boswell, the humble loving friend, the least talented of the three, did better still, though being English, he had to keep to the surface of things and leave the depths to be divined. Oscar evidently expected Plato and Renan to have surpassed comparison.
It seemed to me, however, that the illiterate Galilean fishermen had proved themselves still more consummate painters than Boswell, though they, too, left a great deal too much to the imagination. Love is the best of artists; the puddle of rain in the road can reflect a piece of sky marvellously.
The Gospel story had a personal interest for Oscar; he was always weaving little fables about himself as the Master.
In spite of my ignorance of Hebrew the story of Jesus had always had the strongest attraction for me, and so we often talked about Him, though from opposite poles.
Renan I felt had missed Jesus at his highest. He was far below the sincerity, the tenderness and sweet-thoughted wisdom of that divine spirit. Frenchman-like, he stumbled over the miracles and came to grief. Claus Sluter's head of Jesus in the museum of Dijon is a finer portrait, and so is the imaginative picture of Fra Angelico. It seemed to me possible to do a sketch from the Gospels themselves which should show the growth of the soul of Jesus and so impose itself as a true portrait.
Oscar's interest in the theme was different; he put himself frankly in the place of his model, and appeared to enjoy the jarring antinomy which resulted. One or two of his stories were surprising in ironical suggestion; surprising too because they showed his convinced paganism. Here is one which reveals his exact position:
"When Joseph of Arimathea came down in the evening from Mount Calvary where Jesus had died he saw on a white stone a young man seated weeping. And Joseph went near him and said, 'I understand how great thy grief must be, for certainly that Man was a just Man.' But the young man made answer, 'Oh, it is not for that I am weeping. I am weeping because I too have wrought miracles. I also have given sight to the blind, I have healed the palsied and I have raised the dead; I too have caused the barren fig tree to wither away and I have turned water into wine ... and yet they have not crucified me.'"
At the time this apologue amused me; in the light of later events it assumed a tragic significance. Oscar Wilde ought to have known that in this world every real superiority is pursued with hatred, and every worker of miracles is sure to be persecuted. But he had no inkling that the Gospel story is symbolic—the life-story of genius for all time, eternally true. He never looked outside himself, and as the fruits of success were now sweet in his mouth, a pursuing Fate seemed to him the most mythical of myths. His child-like self-confidence was pathetic. The laws that govern human affairs had little interest for the man who was always a law unto himself. Yet by some extraordinary prescience, some inexplicable presentiment, the approaching catastrophe cast its shadow over his mind and he felt vaguely that the life-journey of genius would be incomplete and farcical without the final tragedy: whoever lives for the highest must be crucified.
It seems memorable to me that in this brief summer of his life, Oscar Wilde should have concerned himself especially with the life-story of the Man of Sorrows who had sounded all the depths of suffering. Just when he himself was about to enter the Dark Valley, Jesus was often in his thoughts and he always spoke of Him with admiration. But after all how could he help it? Even Dekker saw as far as that:
"The best of men That e'er wore earth about Him."
This was the deeper strain in Oscar Wilde's nature though he was always disinclined to show it. Habitually he lived in humorous talk, in the epithets and epigrams he struck out in the desire to please and astonish his hearers.
One evening I learned almost by chance that he was about to try a new experiment and break into a new field.
He took up the word "lose" at the table, I remember.
"We lose our chances," he said, laughing, "we lose our figures, we even lose our characters; but we must never lose our temper. That is our duty to our neighbour, Frank; but sometimes we mislay it, don't we?"
"Is that going in a book, Oscar?" I asked, smiling, "or in an article? You have written nothing lately."
"I have a play in my mind," he replied gravely. "To-morrow I am going to shut myself up in my room, and stay there until it is written. George Alexander has been bothering me to write a play for some time and I've got an idea I rather like. I wonder can I do it in a week, or will it take three? It ought not to take long to beat the Pineros and the Joneses." It always annoyed Oscar when any other name but his came into men's mouths: his vanity was extraordinarily alert.
Naturally enough he minimised Mr. Alexander's initiative. The well-known actor had "bothered" Oscar by advancing him L100 before the scenario was even outlined. A couple of months later he told me that Alexander had accepted his comedy, and was going to produce "Lady Windermere's Fan." I thought the title excellent.
"Territorial names," Oscar explained, gravely, "have always a cachet of distinction: they fall on the ear full toned with secular dignity. That's how I get all the names of my personages, Frank. I take up a map of the English counties, and there they are. Our English villages have often exquisitely beautiful names. Windermere, for instance, or Hunstanton," and he rolled the syllables over his tongue with a soft sensual pleasure.
I had a box the first night and, thinking it might do Oscar some good, I took with me Arthur Walter of The Times. The first scene of the first act was as old as the hills, but the treatment gave charm to it if not freshness. The delightful, unexpected humour set off the commonplace incident; but it was only the convention that Arthur Walter would see. The play was poor, he thought, which brought me to wonder.
After the first act I went downstairs to the foyer and found the critics in much the same mind. There was an enormous gentleman called Joseph Knight, who cried out:
"The humour is mechanical, unreal." Seeing that I did not respond he challenged me:
"What do you think of it?"
"That is for you critics to answer," I replied.
"I might say," he laughed, "in Oscar's own peculiar way, 'Little promise and less performance.' Ha! ha! ha!"
"That's the exact opposite to Oscar's way," I retorted. "It is the listeners who laugh at his humour."
"Come now, really," cried Knight, "you cannot think much of the play?"
For the first time in my life I began to realise that nine critics out of ten are incapable of judging original work. They seem to live in a sort of fog, waiting for someone to give them the lead, and accordingly they love to discuss every new play right and left.
"I have not seen the whole play," I answered. "I was not at any of the rehearsals; but so far it is surely the best comedy in English, the most brilliant: isn't it?"
The big man started back and stared at me; then burst out laughing.
"That's good," he cried with a loud unmirthful guffaw. "'Lady Windermere's Fan' better than any comedy of Shakespeare! Ha! ha! ha! 'more brilliant!' ho! ho!"
"Yes," I persisted, angered by his disdain, "wittier, and more humorous than 'As You Like It,' or 'Much Ado.' Strange to say, too, it is on a higher intellectual level. I can only compare it to the best of Congreve, and I think it's better." With a grunt of disapproval or rage the great man of the daily press turned away to exchange bleatings with one of his confreres.
The audience was a picked audience of the best heads in London, far superior in brains therefore to the average journalist, and their judgment was that it was a most brilliant and interesting play. Though the humour was often prepared, the construction showed a rare mastery of stage-effect. Oscar Wilde had at length come into his kingdom.
At the end the author was called for, and Oscar appeared before the curtain. The house rose at him and cheered and cheered again. He was smiling, with a cigarette between his fingers, wholly master of himself and his audience.
"I am so glad, ladies and gentlemen, that you like my play. I feel sure you estimate the merits of it almost as highly as I do myself."
The house rocked with laughter. The play and its humour were a seven days' wonder in London. People talked of nothing but "Lady Windermere's Fan." The witty words in it ran from lip to lip like a tidbit of scandal. Some clever Jewesses and, strange to say, one Scotchman were the loudest in applause. Mr. Archer, the well-known critic of The World, was the first and only journalist to perceive that the play was a classic by virtue of "genuine dramatic qualities." Mrs. Leverson turned the humorous sayings into current social coin in Punch, of all places in the world, and from a favourite Oscar Wilde rapidly became the idol of smart London.
The play was an intellectual triumph. This time Oscar had not only won success but had won also the suffrages of the best. Nearly all the journalist-critics were against him and made themselves ridiculous by their brainless strictures; Truth and The Times, for example, were poisonously puritanic, but thinking people came over to his side in a body. The halo of fame was about him, and the incense of it in his nostrils made him more charming, more irresponsibly gay, more genial-witty than ever. He was as one set upon a pinnacle with the sunshine playing about him, lighting up his radiant eyes. All the while, however, the foul mists from the underworld were wreathing about him, climbing higher and higher.
 Cfr. Appendix: "Criticisms by Robert Ross."
Thou hast led me like an heathen sacrifice, With music and with fatal pomp of flowers, To my eternal ruin.—Webster's The White Devil.
"Lady Windermere's Fan" was a success in every sense of the word, and during its run London was at Oscar's feet. There were always a few doors closed to him; but he could afford now to treat his critics with laughter, call them fogies and old-fashioned and explain that they had not a decalogue but a millelogue of sins forbidden and persons tabooed because it was easier to condemn than to understand.
I remember a lunch once when he talked most brilliantly and finished up by telling the story now published in his works as "A Florentine Tragedy." He told it superbly, making it appear far more effective than in its written form. A well-known actor, piqued at being compelled to play listener, made himself ridiculous by half turning his back on the narrator. But after lunch Willie Grenfell (now Lord Desborough), a model English athlete gifted with peculiar intellectual fairness, came round to me: