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Douglas Anchor


I AM not sure that this chapter is headed in quite the way that Oscar Wilde's adherents would like it to be. When he wished to seem particularly important, Wilde was wont to describe himself, not only as a Lord of Language, but as the King of Life. His claims to these magniloquent titles have been suffered to pass unquestioned by his critics, and unassailed even by his enemies.

The coterie of long-haired persons who weep at the mention of ''dear Oscar's" name and hold him up for a saint and a martyr, naturally take pride in his own description of himself, and will no doubt consider it remiss of me to leave out one of them from this chapter heading. The King of Life business has always appeared to me to have been settled at the Old Bailey, and since such a title as the Lord of Language is plainly literary in its bearings, I suppose I am free to discuss it from the literary point of view. And I must state at the outset that I am not concerned to deal with Wilde in other than a reasonable, critical spirit.

If his fame and writings had been left to themselves instead of becoming the subject of attentions on the part of over-zealous log-rollers on the one hand and catch-penny scandalmongers on the other, Wilde would, in the nature of things, have attained to his proper position in literary history and to his proper status as an author.

As it is, I maintain that the current views about his character and his writings are exaggerated and even preposterous—views very far ahead of the true facts and, in a large measure, opposed to what Wilde himself would have wished. Practically everybody nowadays who writes for pleasure or for profit about Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde has taken him for granted as a sort of literary and artistic aristocrat who had a natural right to the best of life and for whom all beauty and delicacy were created.

One of the most recent of his biographers says: ''Wilde provides us with the rare spectacle of a man most of whose powers are those of a spectator, a connoisseur, a man for whom pictures are painted and books written, the perfect elaborator for whom the artist hopes in his heart.''

I have never seen a fault of taste, a fault of judgment or a fault of intellect attributed to him. Even his vices are held up to us as having been necessary to the development of his chartered and immaculate soul, and as having contributed and been necessary to the perfection of his work. Greater bunkum was never propagated.

Wilde was far from being in any sense a perfervid worshipper of the beautiful. To suggest that beauty was all in all for him is to suggest what is not true. He was never content that other people should write fine poetry or fine prose for him to admire, his sole ambition being to write fine things himself—not especially for the fine thing's sake, but for the sake of being able to pose as the one great and superior person in all the world.

It is not to Wilde's discredit, perhaps, that he praised but little or, as one might say, frugally. There was nobody of his time who greatly required to be praised. He professed the stock admiration for Tennyson, Swinburne, Meredith and Pater; but when he expressed it — which was seldom—it was always with the reservation that of the five he himself was the greatest. There were occasions, of course, when he could be adulatory, and even obsequious ; but this was either to dead men or to those of his contemporaries who were engaged in arts with which he was not concerned as a practitioner.

His sonnets to Miss Ellen Terry and the late Henry Irving may stand for his monument in this special line. As to artists painting pictures for him, and so forth, the great quarrel of his life was with Whistler, from whom he derived practically everything that he affected to know about art and whose work he believed to be “Vastly overrated”.

Of pictures in their relation to beauty he had little or no appreciation. Just as the far-famed blue china at Oxford was valuable to him because he could make mots over it and get himself talked about, all his views and his expressions of opinion with respect to art were not the views and opinions of the person who loves and knows art, but were designed to illustrate his own singularity or superiority, or to support a pose. In spite of all he wrote and said on the subject, and in spite of all that has been said and written by his admirers, there is nothing of Wilde that persists in criticism on the art side which is not to be found in Whistler's 'Ten o'clock,'' or which he had not gleaned either from his contemporaries or from the older writers on the literary side. In order to show more clearly what I mean, let us take the preface to ''Dorian Gray," which, as is well known, consists of a number of aphorisms concerning art and criticism as Wilde is supposed to have believed in them. I quote some of them:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.

To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth-century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.

It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.

When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

These remarks have been held up to us as Wilde's credo, and slight and few though they be, it is the fact that they do really epitomise what some people call his ''teaching." One has only to glance at them, however, to perceive that without exception they are either obvious or perverted truisms or the merest glosses on quite hoary critical adages. For example, 'The artist is the creator of beautiful things" must have been said at least a thousand times before Wilde suddenly rushed upon the world with it as a new and marvellous discovery. 'To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim'' is a very cheap variant of the saying that language was invented to conceal one's thoughts, or Horace's old tag: ''Ars est celare artem”. 'The highest and lowest form of criticism is a form of autobiography" is merely to say what was said by Rousseau —namely: that all writing is in essence autobiographical; while "It is the spectator and not life, that art really mirrors" is merely Shakespeare's "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," clumsily rendered. All the talk about there being no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, and about art being quite useless, is the merest perversion and fiddle-de-dee, as anybody who is not in the last stage of idiocy will perceive for himself.

I maintain that this statement of Wilde—which, by the way, did not originally appear as a preface to "Dorian Gray," but was painfully and carefully compiled when its author was at the height of his achievement and wished to pontificate—shows us clearly the nature of the man's mind, which was a shallow and comparatively feeble mind, incapable of grappling unaided with even moderately profound things, and disposed to fribble and antic with old thoughts for lack of power to evolve new ones.

It was a mind which was continually discovering with a glow that two and two make four, or pretending to discover with a much warmer glow that two and two make five. In every scrap that he wrote, leaving out, of course, the poems, you will find this feeble, mediocre, but, withal, vain-glorious instrument hard at work on the fearful business of saying nothing in such a way that foolish people will shout about it.

Wilde knew himself for a shallow and oblique thinker. The fact that he never did anything really great has been set down to his indolence. It was due really to shallowness rather than indolence. When he found that nobody would read his poetry, he became most indolent about the writing of verses and complained that there was nothing for a poet of his eminence to write about. When he found that people would listen to lectures written on a basis of Whistler and William Morris, he wrote and delivered such lectures with an industry worthy of the best of causes. And when he found actor-managers who would produce money ''on account'^ for such drama as ''Lady Windermere's Fan'' and such comedy as "The Importance of being Earnest," he wrote plays till the sweat fairly rolled off him. But he was conscious, as every unbiased contemporary critic was conscious, that he ran very far short of the achievement of which he was wont to plume himself, and he knew that when it came to serious things he was always considered more or less of a dabbler.

Like most Irishmen, he was troubled all his life with attacks of regret which he was accustomed to call remorse. He believed that he had supreme gifts and that he had squandered them; he never could see that it was impossible that a man who pretended, as he pretended, could ever have had supreme gifts. His remorse over the squandering of these alleged gifts was at times ludicrous to behold. He would bemoan his wasted life and come very nigh shedding tears about his shallowness at two o'clock in the morning; while at one o'clock the same day he would be swallowing ortolans as if they were oysters and swearing over some silly liqueur that he was the greatest genius that ever lived.

In time, this notion of shallowness became an obsession with him. He makes constant use of the word ''shallow" in his writings, and right through ''De Profundis" you find him crying ''the supreme vice is shallowness” in and out of season, and without the remotest reference to the context. Of course, if we endeavour to look into the psychology of the situation, we perceive clearly that it was impossible for a man of Wilde's type to do any really big work, and he certainly never did do it. His claims to be considered as a ''Lord of Language'' will not bear looking into. He wrote passable verse and competent prose, but he wrote no better verse and no better prose than several other men of his time whose writings are more or less forgotten

We have it on the statement of Mr. Justice Darling that Wilde could "conjure with words." I should like chapter and verse for any verbal conjuring which can be considered worth remembering, or which, for that matter, is remembered. I think that all Wilde did for the English language was to degrade, abuse or make ridiculous such words as "exquisite," "wonderful," "charming," "delightful," "delicate," and so forth. He bored me to death at times with his "How perfectly wonderful of you !" while his "charming fellows" and "charming ladies," "delicious dishes," "exquisite liqueurs" and general ecstatics were like sands on the sea where the blue wave rolls nightly.

He was plagued with the Irishman's propensity to muddle his "shalls" and "wills," and I found in him an utter incapacity to understand or appreciate, in the literary sense, certain plain English idioms with which any man possessed of a feeling for language would never have had the slightest trouble. I remember having a lengthy and fearful argument with him over Shakespeare's use of the word ''your'' in such phrases as “your tanner will last you eleven years." He could understand neither the force nor the sense of such usages and, though he ''tumbled" in the end, he was a fearful time about it. One does not expect such dullness in a Lord of Language.

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