OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
AFTER leaving Winchester, where I won the school steeplechase and edited a paper, called the Pentagram—the only literary or journalistic venture, by the way, out of which I ever made a profit—I went up to Oxford in the ordinary course. I was entered at Magdalen College, and I remained an undergraduate of the University for four years.
Magdalen, as it always has been in recent times, and still continues to be, was considered a more or less fashionable college. It was the never-ending boast of Oscar Wilde that he had been there. The continuous “when I was at Oxford" which crops up in his writings was complemented by continuous ''when I was at Magdalen" in his conversation. I do not know that there was anything extraordinary about Magdalen in my time. I look back upon my life there as fairly pleasant, and chiefly so because I had the companionship of my friend, the late Viscount Encombe, whose death at the early age of twenty-eight was a great blow to me.
Of course, I met at Oxford all the people who were supposed to be worth meeting. There was Mr. Warren, then, as now, President of Magdalen, whom I remember on account of his black beard and his very obsequious treatment of myself. He was a profound admirer of Matthew Arnold, whose poetry he urged me to study and imitate. He also, rather incongruously, professed great admiration for the writings of his personal friend, John Addington Symonds. I say "incongruously;'' for an admiration for Matthew Arnold ought surely to preclude an admiration for Symonds, at any rate, as far as poetry is concerned.
For Oscar Wilde he also admitted a great partiality. They had been contemporaries at the University in their undergraduate days and, to a certain extent, friends. When Wilde came up to see me at Oxford, he always made a point of calling on Mr. Warren, and on these occasions I invariably accompanied him, and I thus had the advantage of profiting by their conversation, which, needless to say, generally turned on literary matters; but I cannot honestly say that I was greatly edified or that any gems of purest ray serene from these duologues have remained shining in my memory.
When I first became an intimate friend of Oscar Wilde, my mother, who had an instinctive dislike of Wilde, wrote to Mr. Warren and asked him if he considered Wilde was the sort of man who would be a good friend for me. The President, in reply, sent her a long letter in which he gave Wilde a very high character, praised his great gifts and achievements of scholarship and literature, and assured her that I might consider myself lucky to have obtained the favourable notice of such an eminent man. I mention this, not as anything to Mr. Warren's detriment, but simply to show the sort of reputation Wilde at that time enjoyed among the big-wigs of the University.
Then there was Walter Pater, to whom I was introduced by Wilde on the first occasion when the latter visited me at Oxford. Wilde had an immense opinion of Pater and spoke of him always with reverence as the greatest living writer of prose. I tried hard to appreciate Pater and he personally was kind to me, but quite apart from the fact that he had practically no conversation and would sit for hours without saying more than an occasional word, I never could bring myself to have more than a very limited admiration for his far-famed prose, which has always seemed to me artificial, finnicking and over-elaborated to an exasperating degree. I have altogether livelier recollections of Mr., now the Reverend Dr. Bussell, Pater's most intimate friend at Brazenose, for he was a fine musician and had a devotion to Handel and Bach which endears his memory to me to this day.
Next to Encombe, probably my best friend among the undergraduates of my day was the poet Lionel Johnson, a frail, tiny man, with probably the finest head and the kindest heart in the University. We talked and wrote a considerable amount of poetry together, and it was Johnson who introduced me to Oscar Wilde. At this period Wilde had just begun to be considered a person of some promise in letters. He had outgrown "aesthetics" and had written "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "Intentions," and was rehearsing his first play: Lady Windermere's Fan.
One vacation I went with Johnson to Wilde's house in Tite Street, and over dinner commenced a friendship which was to be none too fortunate for either of us. For some reason or other Wilde insisted on being considerably more brilliant that evening than ever he was afterwards. Indeed, he fired off witticisms so persistently and with such an evident anxiety not to miss even the slenderest of opportunities that, while I had come to the meeting in the spirit of the youthful admirer, or literary hero-worshipper, I went away with a sort of feeling that I had been at a show and that I had not seen a really great man after all.
However, as our acquaintance ripened, I began to understand, or imagine that I understood, Wilde's moods. I soon perceived that he said quite half of everything he had to say with his tongue in his cheek and that one should not really take him seriously, because his only aim in conversation was not to say what he believed, but to say what he supposed to be witty, profound, whimsical or brilliant at the moment.
Further, I soon discovered that Wilde was one of those conversationalists who were conscious of the value, not only of their own mots, but of those of other people, and that his or my joke or epigram let loose over lunch on Monday was bound to figure in the bit of dialogue or portion of an essay which he would indite, with the help of stiff whiskies-and sodas and illimitable cigarettes, on a Tuesday morning. At the same time, I cheerfully admit that I found him an agreeable, entertaining and even lovable acquaintance. He had, of course, an eye for humour and beauty, he was a great deal of a scholar, he spoke good English and excellent French, and he had a pleasant voice and a charming delivery. Compared with the average man-about-town he shone, and compared with the average ''man of genius'' he scintillated.
During my second year at Oxford I contributed to the Oxford Magazine, the official journal of the University, a poem which pleased everybody but its author and provoked the excellent Mr. Warren to write me a lengthy letter of praise and congratulation. Unfortunately, I have not got this epistle at hand, otherwise I might be tempted to print it with a view of convincing the University Oxford that I am indeed somewhat of a poet. This was the first serious poem I ever wrote or, at any rate, preserved, and it is now included in the "City of the Soul.''
I also contributed on several occasions to an undergraduate paper called The Spirit Lamp, which was owned by a man whose name I forget, but he called on me one day and explained that he was going down and very munificently offered to make me a present of his journalistic property if, as he diffidently put it, I cared to take it on and would promise to continue its high traditions to the best of my ability. I gave this gentleman the necessary assurances, and The Spirit Lamp became mine. Six or seven subsequent numbers appeared under my editorship, and copies of these numbers are, I understand, worth considerably more than their published price in what is known as the market.
Of my own contributions I have a poor opinion, though they were warmly appreciated at the time of their appearance by that class of person who makes warm appreciations a sort of hobby. I am proud of the fact, however, that I printed some of Lionel Johnson's best verses and several contributions from the late John Addington Symonds, and I also had the advantage of various contributions from Wilde, including his prose poems “The Disciple" and “The House of Judgment,'' and what I consider to be the best sonnet he ever wrote. Wilde frequently came to Oxford in those days, and on several occasions stayed as my guest in the rooms in High Street which I shared with my friend, Lord Encombe.
Although throughout my career as an undergraduate I was keenly interested in poetry and letters generally, I did not profess to belong to any literary set and I had no notion of taking to writing as a profession. My name and family traditions marked me out for the sporting and convivial side of University life rather than for serious literary endeavour. I read for the Honours school in a desultory kind of way, but relieved the tedium of my prescribed studies by a good deal of riding and boating and fairly regular attendance at such race-meetings as were within reasonable distance of what Mr. Ruskin doubtless called his Alma Mater. At the same time, my interest in poetry was well known in the University, and I was considered a poet of promise and parts.
Of course, every undergraduate who can write poetry at all is expected to compete for the Newdigate prize. I was frequently urged by my friends to enter for this prize, but none of the subjects set during my first three years at Oxford appealed to me. Tennyson, if I remember rightly, won the Newdigate with a poem about Timbuctoo. Such a subject while, perhaps, entertaining enough in its way, is, obviously, not very inspiring and certainly not calculated to induce the production of high poetry.
As I have said, the subjects set in my first three years did not excite in me any great poetical emotion. In my fourth year, however, the subject was St. Francis of Assisi, and I felt at once that here was my opportunity. I told my friends that I should enter, and began to plan the poem. I was talking of the matter at dinner one night, with Encombe and the late Lord Warkworth—afterwards Earl Percy, who was at that time at Christchurch—and I told the latter that I was going in for the prize. He said that he, too, was having a shot at it, and pointed out that it was impossible for me to enter as I was in my fourth year. He offered to show me the rule in the Statutes, but, unfortunately, we had not a copy handy and I took it that Warkworth knew what he was talking about and let the thing drop. Lord Warkworth won the Newdigate that year himself, and it was only after the announcement of his success that I discovered that there was no such rule as the one he had told me of.
Of course, I make no aspersion on Warkworth's good intentions in the matter; yet, in a sense, it is a pity that I did not look more closely into the rules, because, though I say it myself, I could have beaten him with a good many lengths to spare, and though to have won the Newdigate means, perhaps, very little from a literary point of view, it appears to be a good backing for a man who goes in seriously for poetry.
I have noticed with some astonishment that whenever opportunity has arisen persons who do not love me have been at pains to suggest that there was something discreditable about my Oxford career. It has been hinted that I was ''sent down'' in disgrace, and great capital has been made of the circumstance that I left Oxford without a degree. In point of fact, I was ''sent down'' in my second year for a term because I was "ploughed" in my examination for "smalls," and I soon set this right by spending three weeks with a crammer and getting myself well posted up in Euclid and such-like subjects, which, though doubtless very important in their way, had never specially attracted me.
When the time came for my examination in the Honours school I happened to be ill and was unable to attend, so that I left the University degreeless. Without any suggestion from me, the authorities offered to confer an honorary degree upon me if I cared to return in the vacation and pass two papers. I consulted my father, the late Marquis of Queensberry, on the subject, and he told me that he had never known a degree to be worth two-pence to anybody, and, accordingly, I never took the trouble to avail myself of the Oxford's kind offer. If going down without a degree is a crime, I belong to an excellent company of criminals, for Swinburne left Oxford minus a degree and so did Lord Rosebery and, if it comes to genius, so did the poet Shelley.
I need hardly say that Oscar Wilde expressed himself as entirely delighted with my remissness in failing to become an M.A. Oxon. He said, in his usual airy way, that it was ''wonderful" of me and a ''distinction,'' and he pointed out that I should be like Swinburne, who determined to remain an undergraduate all his life. I am free to confess that personally I did not take much interest in the matter either way, though, had I understood the world then as I understand it now, I might have been a trifle less careless.
Generally, I do not wish it to be supposed that my life at Oxford was any more immaculate than that of other young men in my own position in life. I came into collision with the authorities on various small sins of omission and commission. I was gated once for going to the Derby—wicked youth that I was!—and I dare say I worried the authorities by my persistent refusal to take either themselves or the University for the most serious thing in nature. But I lived with them gloriously and delicately for the full undergraduate span of four years, save one term over ''smalls,'' and, as I have shown, they were quite willing to take me to their bosom as a full member of the University if I had cared to fall into their embrace.
The idea that Oxford is a place entirely given over to the laborious and the assiduous pursuit of knowledge is a mistake. It can be proved quite easily that, while the assiduous and the laborious who choose to make Oxford a sort of career may do very well out of it in the way of Fellowships, scholastic appointments, and so forth, the best men Oxford turns out are, in the main, men who have been considered to have missed their opportunities. Everybody who was anybody at Oxford in my time had a disposition to be very modest about learning and a trifle shy about recommending it as the be-all and end-all of life.
There is a tale attributed to a certain worthy Don—indeed, it is said to have been his stock story—which relates to two excellent youths of good family who went up to Oxford together. One of them was slack and fond of his ease; he read nothing and did nothing and, after years of dissipation, was fain to get a living by driving a hansom-cab. The other youth, the pride of his family and college, read everything and won everything and did everything that was proper. Years after, somebody found him in London doing his best to keep the wolf from the door by driving a four-wheeler. This is an old story, but it is a very good one, and anybody who knows Oxford in the intimate personal sense knows how true it may well he. For myself, I think if it had come to cab-driving the hansom would unquestionably have been my vehicle.
I was careless and desultory in the widest sense of the terms ; so careless and desultory, in fact, that, with a view to saving time and trouble in my intercourse with the authorities, I had a form printed as follows : —
Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas presents his
and regrets that he will be unable to
....................................in consequence of
Filled up, this ingenious document would read as follows:
Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas presents his compliments to Professor Smith and regrets that he will be unable to show up an essay on the Evolution of the Moral Idea in consequence of not having prepared one.
I found these missives extremely useful and used a great quantity. They were famed throughout the University and, though they angered some of the Dons to the verge of madness, nothing could be done about them, because they were obviously polite, and an undergraduate who is polite to his pastors and masters has done his duty.
It may be on the strength of this form and on my being "sent down" for a failure to pass ''smalls" that the legend and fiction of my alleged ignominious career at Oxford depends. I know of nothing more serious, otherwise I should be pleased to unburden myself. Both before and after I terminated my undergraduate-ship by removing my name from the books of Magdalen College, I was a frequent visitor to the scene of my old triumphs and kept up many friendships among the men of my time and among the University authorities.
I removed my name from the books of my own free will and as a matter of personal convenience. What I did may have been a trifle unusual, though I am acquainted with at least one distinguished Oxford man who did precisely the same thing, and that my actions should have been twisted into a sort of horrible wickedness must have startled a good many other people besides myself.
So much for the gay Lord Alfred Douglas, undergraduate of Magdalen College, Oxford.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry