Wilde: More Lives Than One

Three quarter length portrait
of Oscar Wilde, c. 1882
BY Napoleon Sarony
(Photographic print on card mount: albumen)
Library of Congress
Prints & Photographs Division
LOT 12385

The currently high esteem Oscar Wilde is held in by the French and Germans may seem odd to an Englishman. But the enduring fascination Wilde exerts on the modern mind is certainly reciprocated in contemporary England — the stained glass window in Westminister Abbey (1995) — alongside luminaries like Pope, Housman, Marlowe; the monument near Trafalgar Square (1998) as well as the more recent Oliver Park film adaptations of Dorian Gray (2009), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) and The Ideal Husband (1999). In fact, in the last decade, there have been at least seven film adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray alone; and needless to say, the effervescent plays themselves (which established Wilde’s reputation as ubiquitous wit) are never quite offstage.

In 2004, at a Sotheby’s auction of a trove of Wilde material almost everything was sold to private buyers or British dealers, with the notable exception of a vitriolic attack (Wilde Myth, an unpublished book) by his tempestuous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, as well as a photograph of Wilde on his deathbed. Which is to say that, over a hundred years after his death, Oscar Wilde still lives in the public imagination and that love for him unabashedly dares to declare its name.

One of the less sensational accusations leveled against Oscar Wilde is that he was merely a plagiarizer of Walter Pater, English critic and advocate of the doctrine “art for art’s sake.” But Wilde’s indebtedness to Pater was of another caliber altogether; he was his apostle. If he sang freely from Pater’s aesthetic hymn book it is because Pater and his theories on art represented a cult that Wilde sought to make a religion. What’s more, Wilde “plagiarized” widely, an example of Eliot’s famous justification “great poets steal.”

In his introduction to The Portable Oscar Wilde, Richard Aldington writes “Absolute originality in art is of course a delusion. Not only are we all the sons of somebody in whatever art we attempt, but the ‘higher’ our aims the greater the number of predecessors to whom we are indebted… All writers borrow from others, consciously or unconsciously. The successful — I mean artistically — do it consciously.”

Wilde was no exception. As an impressionable young poet, he borrowed from his Masters — Milton, Tennyson and Arnold — as a critic he borrowed from his contemporaries; as a novelist he borrowed from Disraeli, Stevenson and Huysmans, and as a dramatist he is indebted to the French scandal plays. In fact, throughout his entire career, he regularly borrowed from himself.

What is significant is the synthesis, or outcome, of these influences, how Wilde’s distinctive voice transforms whatever he borrows into something uniquely his own.

“Walter Pater’s style is, to me, like the face of some old woman who has been to Madame Rachel and had herself enameled. The bloom is nothing but powder and paint and the odor is cherry blossom —” this is Samuel Butler’s assessment of Pater’s overwrought style. Certainly, Wilde borrowed openly from Pater’s Renaissance, but sharing the same credo meant occasionally sharing the same forms of expression.

However, the overall impression produced by both men is markedly different. Pater is bleak, morbid, restrained and unnatural, like Butler’s “enameled woman”; while Wilde exudes wit that is light, bright and effortless. The celebrated incident in Oxford, where the normally taciturn Professor Pater in an ecstasy of admiration, dropped to his knees and made to kiss the undergraduate Wilde’s hands, would suggest he agreed with this evaluation.

But this is all immaterial, or rather raw material. What is significant is the synthesis, or outcome, of these influences, how Wilde’s distinctive voice transforms whatever he borrows into something uniquely his own. Wedding the creative and critical faculties, he produced distinguished essays (“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” “The Truth of Masks”); his short stories reveal a rare sensitivity and spirituality, especially The Happy Prince and Other Tales; his dialogues are notable for their wit and contrarian wisdom (“The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”) and the plays are recognized classics.

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