OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
It is very hard, indeed, well-nigh impossible, for me to recapture and set forth for the benefit of my readers the secret of the fascination that Oscar Wilde had for me in those far-off days. The revelation of his perfidy and vileness which came to me when, about a year ago, I first got knowledge of the existence of the unpublished portion of ''De Profundis,'' the shock of horror, indignation and disgust which the reading of that abominable document produced in my mind, and the ever-recurring reflection that during the last few years of his life and after his release from prison, when he was professing the greatest friendship and affection for me and living—for a time in part, and ultimately altogether—on my bounty, he was all the while the secret author of a foul and lying attack on me and on my family which he had arranged to make public after my death, combine to make the task of reconstructing a semblance of my old feeling for him almost a hopeless one.
Long however before I had cognisance of the unpublished ''De Profundis," my view of his character and my estimate of his value as a man of letters had undergone a profound change. With the passing of the years and a more serious and mature outlook on the facts of life and on the responsibilities of those who seek the suffrages or merely the ears of the general reader, I had arrived at the conclusion that Oscar Wilde's writings were ridiculously overrated, that he was never either a great poet or a great writer of prose, and that the harm he had caused to the whole body of English literature and the pernicious effect he had exercised on the literary movements and the journalism of the period immediately succeeding his own, very much more than counterbalanced the credit of any legitimate success he may have achieved.
Still, up till the period when the discovery of the unpublished part of ''De Profundis" was forced upon my notice, I carefully refrained from giving voice to these sentiments. The man had been my friend, I had been very fond of him, and I had formerly had an exaggerated view as to the value of his work. I did not therefore consider that I was in any way called upon to interfere with his literary reputation, even though, in my opinion, it was a specious reputation and the result, moreover, of a cleverly-engineered campaign on his behalf, made by friends who were more careful of Wilde's fame than of the general good of letters.
Still less did I conceive it to be any part of my duty to attack what was left of his character. On the contrary, I steadily persisted in taking the best view possible of the man, and until I read the unpublished ''De Profundis'' I kept a great measure of my affection for his memory and, in common with many other people, cherished fond illusions about his moral character.
That my affection for him was real and sincere and continued to be so right up to the time when I read the unpublished part of ''De Profundis'' is fairly proved by the facts that I persistently defended him—even at the cost of some violence to my own literary conscience—in the columns of the Academy when I was its editor, and that I wrote to his memory one of my best sonnets, which I here reproduce: —
The Dead Poet
I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face
All radiant and unshadowed of distress,
And as of old, in music measureless,
I heard his golden voice and marked him trace
Under the common thing the hidden grace,
And conjure wonder out of emptiness,
Till mean things put on beauty like a dress
And all the world was an enchanted place.
And then methought outside a fast locked gate
I mourned the loss of unrecorded words,
Forgotten tales and mysteries half said,
Wonders that might have been articulate.
And voiceless thoughts like murdered singing birds.
And so I woke and knew that he was dead.
Now I wrote that sonnet as long ago as 1901, within a few months of Wilde's death, but I included it in my 1909 volume of sonnets and, in face of it, I could not possibly pretend, even if I wished to do so, that I was not at one time deeply attached to him and that I continued to cherish his memory after his death. But when it comes to explaining that attachment and reproducing the atmosphere which generated it, I find that I am met at the outset by this deplorable set-back—namely and to wit: that the very qualities in him which then excited my admiration, now evoke my contempt.
It must be remembered that when I met Wilde I was very young in years, and still younger in temperament and in experience. I was, in fact, a mere child. I reproduce on the opposite page a photograph of myself, taken in my second year at Oxford, just about the time I first met Wilde. It is obviously the photograph of a boy—and a fairly unsophisticated boy, at that. There are numbers of my friends and contemporaries at Oxford, now living, and they could all bear witness to the fact that even at the age of twenty-three I had the appearance of a youth of sixteen; and though, of course, I should have been woefully offended if any one had told me so at the time, there was much in my character that corresponded with my appearance. I don't think there was ever any one so easily deceived, such an obvious mark for the designing, as I was in those days.
I was never allowed to forget that I was Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of a marquis and a person of consequence. The mere fact that I thought myself very knowing and a complete man of the world only served to make me an easier victim to any accomplished teller of the literary tale. Wilde made a dead set at me. He was attracted by my youth, my guilelessness, and—to be perfectly frank—by what he considered my social importance, and he laid himself out to captivate me and to fascinate me.
He was then about forty years of age ; he was a brilliant talker—every one admits that: I have never heard it denied, even by his greatest enemy; he was utterly unlike any one or anything that I had ever come across before, and he had that sort of assumption of certainty about all the problems of life which is one of the compensations—exchanged for many other better things—that comes at that age to an accomplished man of the world.
He had a habit of enunciating the most entirely unmoral and subversive sentiments in a manner and with an air of final authority which could not fail to appeal to a high-spirited youth, already inclined—as is the manner of high-spirited youth — to kick over the traces. According to him, it didn't matter in the least what one did as long as one happened to be "a charming and graceful young man, related to every one in the peerage,'' and did whatever one wanted to do in “a charming and graceful manner." This ''simple and beautiful" theory appealed irresistibly to me, as it very well might to any thoughtless youth; and, coming as it did from one who was actually looked up to and admired by the President of my College, and who had been commended to my mother as a most desirable acquaintance for me, it naturally seemed the last word of wisdom.
But how can I be expected now to have anything but contempt for such arts, practised by a clever man of the world on an unreflecting boy ? Or how can I be blamed because the recollection of the fact that I was, for the time, attracted by such preposterous and poisonous speciousness is anything else but repugnant to me now when I look back on it ?
In my desperate anxiety to do justice to the memory of one who was formerly my friend, I might be tempted to give more instances of his method of dealing with young men whose good will he was anxious to obtain; but by so doing I should add nothing to his reputation, even for cleverness. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn the head of a young fellow at Oxford or Cambridge. Any man of the world could do so, if he cared to take the trouble and was sufficiently unscrupulous. It does not require great wit or great brains or anything but impudence and a blunted sense of honour. These two ''qualities'' Wilde undoubtedly possessed.
It is easy for any one who has not forgotten the time of his own youth to see how Wilde contrived to attract me. He flattered me incessantly, he professed extreme admiration for the few poetical efforts which I had then produced—efforts, by the way, which, in his Reading Gaol days, became poor ''undergraduate verses"—and whatever I did or whatever I said was "wonderful" in his eyes. He displayed all the outward signs and symbols of friendship and affection.
He has himself set them all out faithfully, so that I am spared the necessity of reproducing them here. I will merely put it on record—to give him the whole of the credit that can possibly be due to him—that, in the matter of sending expensive bunches of muscat grapes and copies of the illustrated papers to my bedside when I happened to be ill, promptly replying to requests for an immediate despatch of cigarettes when I had gone away to the country and forgotten to take them with me, and remembering my favourite dishes when I happened to dine with him, he was ''all that a loving heart could wish."
I accepted these husks for the real bread of friendship, and because it has been all through my life my fatal habit to idealise my friends and to endow them with all sorts of qualities which they never dreamed of possessing, I conceived a great and lasting affection for this man ; and, when he was in trouble, I fought for him and defended him through thick and thin and without any regard to rhyme or reason or my own interest. Hence these tears! And I am not in the least disposed to dispute that I have only myself to blame and that it served me very well right. "
But this is got by casting pearl to hogs.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry