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Douglas Anchor


WILDE once said to me when we were discussing poetry that there were two ways of disliking poetry—one being to dislike it, and the other to like Pope. This remark was brought forth really by Aubrey Beardsley, who was present, and who said that for him, at any rate, there was only one English poet, namely, Pope. It is highly characteristic of Wilde, who, although he insisted on his own eminence as a poet and a critic of poetry, never committed himself to what might be considered a serious theory on the subject. Piecing together the views he expressed from time to time in a casual and general way, I am convinced, indeed, that he had no theory which was in the least stable or cogent and which was not liable to be altered by the moment's whim or mood.

It is certain that, while he hankered after poetic distinction and in his early manhood strove after it, his aim was not so much to produce great poetry as to turn out stuff which would provoke the critics to write about him and the witlings to talk about him. He published a volume of poems when he was twenty-six years of age, but after that he produced next to nothing poetical till he wrote the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol."

"The Sphinx," it is true, was published in 1894, but it had been written many years before. In his preface to ''Wilde's Selected Poems," Mr. Ross tells us that Wilde's early work was never "until recently" well received by the critics. He adds, however, that "they have survived the test of nine editions," with the "nine" in capital letters. For myself, I do not admit that the poems have been well received by criticism, even recently, for the very simple reason that there is very little in them to receive. Of course, it is unfair to apply the test of "reception" to any poetry that is worth talking about, just as it is unfair to rely on the test of editions.

To take an instance in point : there is Miss Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who has been received with all manner of plaudits by all manner of reviewers and whose works have stood the test of probably ninety editions. But who in his senses is going to tell us that this estimable lady is a great poetess and to be mentioned in the same breath as—say—Mrs. Browning or Mrs. Meynell, the latter of whom, at any rate, has not achieved even so many editions as Wilde?

It is plain that the only real test of poetry is its quality, and neither its reception nor its saleability can affect that quality. If we apply such a test to Wilde's early poetical work, which represents the bulk of what he accomplished, we shall not find that he shines with anything like the effulgence that his adherents have imagined for him. Wilde himself knew that he was not a great poet. His cry is, continually: ''I am an artist—the supreme artist, in fact," and never: ''I am a poet," or ''I am the supreme poet." He knew perfectly well that that cock wouldn't fight.

He was not even anxious to be known as a poet in the way that some of his contemporaries were anxious to be known. He told me that to be dubbed ''poet" was to raise up visions of untidy hair, dirty linen, and no dinner to speak of, and such a view of himself he abhorred. ''Never be a poet, my dear Bosie: be a gentleman, a connoisseur, an artist—what you will; but not a poet. Let us leave being a poet to Dowson and Arthur Symons and, if you like, Dick Le Gallienne."

All Wilde's biographers have striven manfully and — one might say—pitifully to make a great poet out of Oscar Wilde, and they have failed. Even Mr. Ransome, the most zealous of the bunch, cannot bring himself to any more flattering conclusion than that Wilde was a sort of inspired plagiarist or imitator who, in Mr. Ransome's view, improved upon what he appropriated. Nobody who has read any poetry other than Wilde's can fail to perceive that, leaving out the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" and, up to a point, 'The Sphinx," Wilde's poetical work consists of clever, and occasionally, perhaps, brilliant imitations.

Wherever one turns in the three hundred pages of his published poems one finds echoes —and little else but echoes. His sonnets are, for the most part, Miltonic in their effects; the metre and method of "In Memoriam" are used in the greater number of his lyrics ; and he uses the metre which Tennyson sealed to himself for all time even in "The Sphinx," which is his great set work; while in such pieces as "Charmides," "Panthea," "Humanitad" and "The Burden of Itys" he borrows the grave pipe of Matthew Arnold and what he himself called the silver-keyed flute of Keats. Haphazard, I take up the Ross-edited volume "Poems by Oscar Wilde," and I open, on page two hundred and twenty-two—"La Mer" :

A white mist drifts across the shrouds,

A wild moon in this wintry sky

Gleams, like an angry Hon's eye.

Out of a mane of tawny clouds.

The muffled steersman at the wheel

Is but a shadow in the gloom:

And in the throbbing engine-room

Leap the long rods of polished steel.

The shattered storm has left its trace

Upon this huge and heaving dome.

For the thin threads of yellow foam

Float on the waves, like ravelled lace.

The bird is Wilde, the plumage and call are Tennyson's to a fault.

Then again, on page one hundred and thirty-six:

To outer senses there is peace,

A dreamy peace on either hand;

Deep silence in the shadowy land,

Deep silence where the shadows cease;

Save for a cry that echoes shrill

From some lone bird disconsolate:

A corn-crake calling to its mate,

The answer from the misty hill.

And suddenly the moon withdraws

Her sickle from the lightening skies.

And to her sombre cavern flies,

Wrapped in a veil of yellow gauze.

More Tennyson, with the 'In Memoriam” verse lines arbitrarily and wrongfully disposed for the deception of the innocent. I might go on quoting from Wilde in the metre ad nauseam and never strike so much as four lines which can be pronounced to be pure Wilde. With 'The Sphinx,'' as a whole, I shall deal later; but I may point out here that while Wilde arranges the stanzas as though they consisted of two lines, they really consist of Tennyson's four and, for correctness' sake, should have been printed thus:

In a dim corner of my room

For longer than my fancy thinks,

A beautiful and silent Sphinx

Has watched me through the shifting gloom.

Inviolate and immobile,

She does not rise, she does not stir;

For silver moons are naught to her.

And naught to her the suns that reel.

Tennyson's suns as well as Tennyson's stanza! I am not suggesting that all this is otherwise than neat and deft and skilful and pleasing, but a poet of parts, leaving out the ''true poet" so beloved of Mr. Ross, should surely have a note or tone or cadence of his own, and not warble so distressingly like the ''true poet" in the next street.

As the Wilde faction appear to be acquainted with no poetry but "poor dear Oscar's," I will take a few passages from "In Memoriam," which, while they will be familiar to the more intelligent reader, will doubtless come in the way of an eye-opener to people like Mr. Ross. Let us repeat, to begin with, the second verse of "La Mer":

The muffled steersman at the wheel

Is but a shadow in the gloom:

And in the throbbing engine-room

Leaps the long rods of polished steel.

This is, as we have seen, Wilde. Against it let us put Tennyson's

I hear the noise about the keel,

I hear the bell struck in the night;

I see the cabin-window bright;

I see the sailor at the wheel.

If ever there was an impudent and unblushing ''crib” surely we have it here! I wonder what the Ransomes, Sherards, Harrises and Inglebys of this little world would say if they caught anybody else but Wilde at pretty little tricks of this kind. In Wilde such childish conveyance must be excused and even held up to admiration ; in another it would be sheer theft. Then, again, take the second set of stanzas I have quoted from Wilde, about peace and silence, and compare them with the following from “In Memoriam":

Calm is the morn, without a sound.

Calm as to suit a calmer grief,

And only through the faded leaf

The chestnut pattering to the ground:

Calm and deep peace on this high wold,

And on these dews that drench the furze,

And all the silvery gossamers

That twinkle into green and gold

Calm and still light on yon great plain

That sweeps with all its autumn bowers,

And crowded farms and lessening towers.

To mingle with the bounding main:

Calm and deep peace in this wide air.

These leaves that redden to the fall;

And in my heart, if calm at all,

If any calm, a calm despair:

Wilde's verses are plainly a paraphrase—and a bad one to boot. It will be urged that he wrote these in his youth, and that all poets, more or less, echo one another when they are young. But when one comes to consider that out of the forty or so lyrical pieces which Wilde wrote no fewer than eighteen are in the metre of ''In Memoriam” and not one of them is free from images, phrases or cadences which can easily be paralleled out of Tennyson, while the whole of ''The Sphinx'' is open to criticism on the same grounds, one cannot doubt that Oscar Wilde is a poet who has rather overdone the youthful imitation business ; and one can scarcely be expected to break the alabaster box of critical adulation at his feet.

I have not space to enter into great detail with regard to those lyrics of Wilde which are not flatly Tennysonian. There are about twenty of them, and they include a cheap imitation of "La Belle Dame sans Merci," a flagrant copy of Hood's lines beginning 'Take her up tenderly," and sundry pieces which are childishly reminiscent of Mrs. Browning, William Morris and even Jean Ingelow. Of his own initiative, Mr. Ross heads up this collection of poetical brummagem with such taking titles as ''Eleutheria," ''Windflowers,'' 'Flowers of Gold," 'The Fourth Movement" and 'Flowers of Love." But the fact that they are wood-pulp or ceraceous replicas of other people's nosegays is of no account to the faithful and the blind.

As regards the sonnets, which may, perhaps, be said to constitute that part of Wilde's poetical work which is best worth consideration, I have only to say that while it would be tedious to compare them side by side with the sonnets of Milton and other writers, such a comparison cannot fail to convince any reasonable being that in this department again

Wilde was an over-sedulous ape—so over-sedulous, in fact, that he is careful to emphasise and exaggerate the very faults and defects of his masters. On the point of technique, the importance of which cannot be too gravely insisted upon where the sonnet form is concerned, he is continuously and hopelessly at fault. His rhyme-sounds are, for the most part, of the cheapest and the most hackneyed. Of the twenty-eight sonnets which he produced, seven have rhymes to ''play," "say," ''day," and so forth; rhymes to ''see," ''be" and "me" are common, and in even greater number; and on no fewer than twenty-one distinct occasions are we proffered such rhymes as "liberty," "anarchy," "memory," "democracy," "already," "victory," "luxury," and the like, or an average of three times in every four sonnets. And this, if you please, is the work of "the supreme artist!"

It follows without saying that while Wilde believed himself to be writing in the Italian sonnet form, he persistently finds himself unable to adhere to the difficult rules of that form. He has octaves with four rhymes in them instead of two, and he will wind up a sextet with a couplet like the veriest tyro of them all. The contents of the sonnets represent the best of Wilde's thought, being, for the most part, free from fleshliness, cynicism and perversity. Yet, when one has said this for it, one has said all. There is nowhere anything very great or very noble or very beautiful, and one never catches even a suggestion of the large accent which makes a poet. Sententiousness, grandiose-ness, and a laboured classicism set forward with the help of an artificial rhetoric which at times is almost comic are the upshot of Wilde's sonnets taken generally and in the lump.

There now remain the set pieces such as "A Garden of Eros” a la Matthew Arnold; 'The New Helen," a la Keats; "The Burden of Itys," a la Matthew Arnold again; 'Tanthea” a blend of Matthew Arnold and Keats; and ''Humanitad” more Arnold ; also 'The Sphinx'' and the "Ballad of Reading Gaol."

No lover of poetry in a high sense is likely to waste much time in the perusal of the five pieces first mentioned. It is not claimed for them by anybody that they are other than cold and super-painted failures, produced in the spirit of "Now, let me show you what I, the scholar and a connoisseur, can do," rather than by any spiritual or poetical impulsion. Only the meagrest portions of them can be admired, even by the elect; and these portions are not edifying.

As for "The Sphinx," even if we concede that the uneasy effect of its metre be dismissed from the question, we have left what is—on the face of it — a work of not always too successful virtuosity on a theme which is frankly bestial. There is an undoubted pomp and swing about some of the stanzas ; there are pictures well visualised and put on the canvas with a fine eye for colour; and the element of curiousness or weirdness is well sustained; but right through the piece one is made to feel that it is not the poet but the mechanician who has come before us, and continually he creaks and whirrs, as it were, for want of oil and control.

Wilde, doubtless, set out to build a jewelled palace for his dubious and, if you come to look at it closely, loathsome fancy. He has succeeded only in establishing a sort of Wardour Street receptacle for old, tarnished and too-vividly-coloured lots. His efforts to do things in the most dazzling and wizardly manner are at times ludicrous, and his endeavours to get up unthinkable passions provoke one to laughter rather than awe. In a despairing determination to tie to the end of the poem something on which a reasonable being might ponder, he becomes utterly inconsequential.

False Sphinx! False Sphinx! By reedy Styx old Charon leaning on his oar,

Waits for my coin. Go thou before, and leave me to my crucifix,

Whose pallid burden, sick with pain, watches the world with wearied eyes,

And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in vain.

The dragging in of this bit of specious religiosity as a bonne bouche after an orgy of flamboyant passion-slaking is, doubtless, very cunning and clever, but it has nothing to do with either great art on the one hand or common sense on the other. “The Sphinx" is a poem which may well have stirred certain resorts in the neighbourhood of Piccadilly Circus to their foundations. It is a poem for the perverse and the ''curious” but its value as art or poetry is next door to negligible.

I have already said that in my view the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" is the only poem of Wilde's which is likely to endure. It is as different from his previous work as chalk is different from cheese, and to read it after perusal of "The Sphinx" or the sonnets, it might almost be the work of another hand. In point of fact, it was indeed written by a Wilde who had very little in common, whether intellectually or artistically, with the Wilde of the bulk of the poems. Up to the time of his imprisonment Oscar Wilde, poet, had encouraged, or pretended to encourage, certain very grave fallacies with regard to poetry. He asserted—largely, I think, because he knew himself to be incapable of sincerity—that poetry was, in its essence, a matter of pretence and artifice. He held that style was everything, and feeling nothing ; that poetry should be removed as well from material actuality as from the actuality of the spirit, and that no great poet had ever in his greatest moments been other than insincere.

He professed other odd views and used roundly to assert that he would rather have written Swinburne's "Poems and Ballads" than anything else in literature; and that Shakespeare was not, after all, a very great poet. I remember that when some idiot talked of starting an ''Anti-Shakespeare Society” on the ground that ''Shakespeare never wrote a line of poetry in his life," Wilde was vastly tickled by the idea, and said that Shakespeare had been much overrated.

He would have it that Webster's "Duchess of Malfi" was a much better play and much better poetry than any of Shakespeare's, and, as he admired little that he did not sooner or later try to imitate, it is possible that we owe his "Duchess of Padua" to this view.

In any case, up to the time of his going to prison, there can be no question that Wilde was peculiar and in a great measure heretical in his notions about what poetry should be. His opinions may or may not have altered while he was in prison. I never heard him renounce them, but after he came out he did arrive at a perception of the fact that a poet who wishes to be heard must make his appeal to the human heart as well as to the intellect, and that perversity is never by any chance poetry. And so he set about the "Ballad of Reading Gaol." Even here, however, he could not walk alone. He must have models, and his actual model was "The Dream of Eugene Aram," with "The Ancient Mariner" thrown in on technical grounds. The result, of course, far outdistances "Eugene Aram," just as in certain ultimate qualities it falls far short of 'The Ancient Mariner”.

It is sufficient for us that in the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" we have a sustained poem of sublimated actuality and of a breadth and sweep and poignancy such as had never before been attained in this line. The emotional appeal is, on the whole, quite legitimate and, if we except a very few passages in which the old Adam Wilde crops out, the established tradition as to what is fitting and comely in a poem of this nature is not outraged or transgressed. Because of this and the general skill and deftness of its workmanship, the poem will last, and, though I cannot agree with those critics who desire to place Wilde among the Immortals, I am certainly of opinion that it is on the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" and on the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" alone that his reputation among posterity will stand.

The placing of poets and poetry in their proper relation to the mass of literature is no fool's job, and I am aware that the opinion of one age is frequently stultified by the opinion of the next. But this is not true of great work. I think it can be established that all great work has been admired and treasured from the beginning. From time to time, too, the vast quantities of mediocre and insignificant work is also admired, but in the nature of things there is no vitality about it and, despite the paean of fools, it perishes. Much that Wilde has strung into verse will so perish. The "Ballad" may persist and save him from the oblivion which he seems to me assiduously to have courted.

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