This piece was originally published on December 6, 1954.
“I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age,” said Oscar Wilde in that curious literary document, De Profundis. “Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so recognized.” He was wrong so far as his own lifetime was concerned, for the late Victorians would have been shocked or amused at the thought that this dandy, with his defiant creed of amoralism in the cause of art, should be regarded as anything but a deviant from the general current of the period. Yet, with a historical irony Wilde himself might have regarded as a vindication of his own playful doctrine of Life imitating Art, the symbolic relationship he demanded has been granted tacitly by posterity.
A century after his birth, and more than half a century after his death, Wilde continues to enjoy a reputation that can hardly be justified by his mere literary achievement. For, if we consider his works at all seriously, it soon becomes evident that few of them can bear comparison with the best work of other writers in his time. The Importance of Being Earnest and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, some of the fairy stories and perhaps Salomé, parts of Intentions and The Soul of Man under Socialism—these are doubtless enough to ensure permanence as minor English classic, but they can hardly justify the reputation Wilde retains or the controversy that centers around him. It is evidently something more than his books alone that makes it impossible to think of the ‘nineties without Wilde or to write the literary history of the past century without paying tribute to his influence.
Wilde’s legend, indeed, owes its longevity partly to the dramatic memory of his fall from popular fame in 1895 and his subsequent death in exile, and this memory has been sustained by the controversy over his personality that had continued almost unabated over the fifty-four years since his death (as recently as 1952, St. John Ervine could write a study of Wilde that was distorted by a bitter attack on his homosexuality and his Irish nationality.) But other writers have been imprisoned, or have been known homosexuals, without drawing the kind of attention that has been focused for so many years upon Wilde. And we must see him as something more than the sensational victim of Victorian mores if we are to explain the way in which interests and controversy have continued to center around his name.
Perhaps we can only explain this phenomenon fully (a) by considering Wilde’s actual works and seeing what induces people to read them despite their imperfections and (b) by analyzing the impression Wilde made upon his contemporaries. The second point should perhaps be considered first, since the fact that Wilde’s trial and condemnation created such a lasting sensation arose largely from the attitude which people had already adopted towards him.
Among those who knew Wilde, few, however hostile, failed in the recognition of his qualities so far as to agree with Henry James that he was nothing more than a “fatuous cad.” Even W.E. Henley, who stood out against everything Wilde represented, called him “the sketch of a great man,” and Charles Ricketts, an intimate friend who saw Wilde when the armour of public personality had been put aside, probably made the most perceptive estate of Wilde’s stature when he said: “In intellect and humanity he is the largest type I have come across. Other greater men in my time were great in some one thing, not large in their very texture.”
The men who knew Wilde best remembered him, significantly, as a personality and conversationalist rather than as a writer. Bernard Shaw, when asked shortly before his own death what persons he would most like to meet, replied: “I do not want to talk to anybody, alive or dead, but if I craved for entertaining conversation by a first-class raconteur, I should choose Oscar Wilde.” Even George Moore, who hated Wilde with that peculiar intensity which Irishmen reserve for each other, agreed after a dinner where Wilde was present that the latter’s conversation was one of the most delightful things in life. And Yeats, who thought little of Wilde as a writer, was unreserved in his praise of Wilde as a talker.
This extraordinary conversational talent was not, as many of Wilde’s critics have suggested, a matter of insubstantial playing with words. On the contrary, it seems often to have had an underlying seriousness of intention and always to have been supported by wide learning. The scientist, Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, encountered Wilde during the latter’s last years of exile, and was so impressed by this single conversation that very many years later he defended Wilde as “a man of wide information and interests, and of commanding intelligence.” And the artist, William Rothenstein, confirmed this with the remark that Wilde had “an extraordinarily illuminating intellect.”
Of the men whose opinions I have quoted, only one, Ricketts, was a close friend of Wilde, and two at least of the others were declared enemies, yet, with the curious exception of Henry James, they appear to have been unanimous in feeling that Wilde was not merely a brilliant talker, but also a personality who at least verged on greatness. It is this impression of a mental as well as a physical giant that explains, not merely the impression Wilde made on his contemporaries in the heyday of his success, but also the indelible interest his character retained in the minds of those who had known him. They may not, indeed, have seen him as a figure in symbolic relation to his age, but they did see him as something extraordinary in any era. It is not often that one is present at the fall of the titan, and it was clearly the magnitude of Wilde’s personality, even more than the circumstances of his downfall, that crystallized his fate into so patent a legend.
But this does not explain why, despite their manifest imperfections and excess, his works are still read, often with impatience, rarely with indifference. The explanation for this is perhaps to be found in the fact that something at least of his largeness of personality enters into his writing and suffuses even so absurd a piece of pastiche as The Picture of Dorian Gray with a quality of daring that rises it above mediocrity. Arthur Symons, indeed, contended that it was Wilde’s attitudes rather than his achievements that were important. This opinion is not wholly just to Wilde, since it ignores the fact that some at least of his writings are of enduring value, but it remains true that Wilde never fulfilled in writing the whole of his potentialities; it is more than suggestive that the work which contains most of himself should have been called Intentions, for it suggested the promise of all that was never achieved.
It is in these essays and in The Soul of Man under Socialism that we see most clearly the basic seriousness of Wilde’s outlook. He puts forward a doctrine of aestheticism, of “art for art’s sake,” but in fact he shows himself to be an inveterate propagandist, and these essays are crammed with stimulating arguments directed towards fostering the idea of a freely developed human personality. Indeed, through all the paradoxes and contradictions of Wilde’s writings and of his life the aim that remains constant is that of the liberation of man from all the bonds of habit and custom and regulation and law that may interfere with his fulfillment. This pursuit of a personal fulfillment combined with an adolescent emotional pattern to engender some of the tragic absurdities of Wilde’s own life, but it also contributed vastly to his importance as a seminal influence in his own day and afterwards. Reading his books or the fragmentary records of his conversation, we come across a host of ideas that in their time were original and daring. Now many of them appear banal, but if we consider them in relation to the Victorian world in which Wilde lived, they show him as a liberal thinker whose propaganda for clear thought and tolerance (and often for more concrete improvements, such as prison reform) was accompanied by many prophetic suggestions on particular aspects of life.
For example right from the days when he lectured America in his velvet pants, Wilde persistently condemned the dry pedagogy of his age, and called for a use of art as means of education which closely anticipated modern advanced practice. At a time when the enlightened still worshipped science, he indicated that its weakness lay in its inability to “grapple with the irrational,” a fact which recent decades have written over our minds in letters of atomic ash. At the same time, while Freud was yet an unknown doctor in Vienna, Wilde was publicly proclaiming the psychological dangers of repressed impulses. And, perhaps most important of all, he showed a profound political insight when, in The Soul of Man under Socialism, he argued that Socialism can be justified only in so far as it fosters the growth of the individual and increases his freedom. While the Fabians toyed with the idea of the all-powerful state, without realizing its long-term implications, Wilde saw clearly the dangers of what we now call totalitarianism. “If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.”
Wilde’s broadest appeal lies in the mood of daring thought and enthusiasm from which such insights emerged. It is significant that he had always attracted the adolescent, and in this way has influenced the literary and intellectual awakening of each generation that has followed his own. “I have met no one who made me so aware of the possibilities latent in myself,” said William Rothenstein, remembering his own youth, and many young people who have met Wilde only through his writings have found there an invaluable stimulus at certain stages of their development. This peculiar appeal to the young arises not only from the romantic iconoclasm of Wilde’s ideas, but also from the almost adolescent zeal with which he champions them.
The Wilde legend evidently contains much that is false, but when we have deflated its absurdities, Wilde still remains, not merely the writer of several permanently readable books, but also a great personality and a seminal influence of unusual persistence. Still there is much to be gained from listening to the tones in which, across the decades since his death, he addresses our era of varied conformity. “Disobedience,” he reminds us, “is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” Here the best of the nineteenth century speaks through its most wayward representative.