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Douglas Anchor


WILDE had written and published 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'' two years before I knew him. At the time of its appearance in Lippincott’s Magazine I was an undergraduate at Oxford and, so far as I know, neither Wilde nor myself had ever set eyes on one another.

I mention this because it has been pretended that Wilde took me for the model for one of his beastly characters. Dates are pretty stubborn things, however, and there can be no doubt whatever that "The Picture of Dorian Gray'' was published in 1890. Not only so, but, by the time I came to know Wilde, the hubbub which the story had first created had altogether died away; and as I did not read the book with any sort of care or critical intention till years afterwards, it never entered into my mind that it expressed the peculiar views of life which it is said to illustrate. Wilde talked about the book sometimes as a highly moral work which had been hopelessly misunderstood by the critics, and he gave me a copy of it in which, as was his custom, he inscribed his name; and I did not read the book again until the time of my father's action against Wilde.

Even then I did not read it closely or with any grave attention. I took it for granted for what Wilde says it was—namely: a work of art with an excellent moral; and I do not wish to say now that it is not a work of art or that it does not point a very splendid moral for morally disposed people. It has been reviewed as such in more than one important religious paper. At the time when I was editing The Academy I blamed Messrs. Methuen for not having the pluck to include the book in their editions of Wilde's works. It seems to me preposterous that if a book can be sold openly at any English bookshop it should be refused inclusion among the author's works by his own publishers.

Since I made my protest on this matter, however, the whole question of Wilde and his books has undergone a marked and, to my mind, a most dangerous change. I quite anticipated that the day would arrive when Wilde's disgrace might, in a sense, be dissociated from his writings. I looked to time and common sense to winnow out what was good in those writings and reject what was noxious or deleterious. It never occurred to me that I should live to see Wilde used in the way in which he has been used, and is being used, to the endangerment of letters and morals.

We are now face to face with this fact—namely: that there exists in England as well as in France, Germany and Russia, a distinct and recognisable Wilde cult, which has as its creed that Wilde was one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived. To this large following, which accepts Wilde's vices as a sign of genius, 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'' has proved to be a powerful weapon. It is a book after their own heart, and its wit and the moral which it points —or does not point, according as one may take it — enable these people to employ it in subtle and devious ways.

I cannot help believing that Wilde must have intended ''Dorian Gray" as a fleer at morality. In effect he may be said to have laid himself out to write a sermon the interest of which should really depend on obscenities. He puts before us one of the vilest of human creatures, and, without particularising as to the nature of his vileness, brings him to an infamous and therefore poetically just end ; but the danger of the thing lies in that, while nine people out of ten could not have told you at the time of the publication of the book wherein the peculiar sin of "Dorian Gray" lay, quite ninety people out of a hundred can now tell you.

What was laughed at for affectation in 1891 assumed a sinister and altogether an abominable aspect as the years went on and the true effect and intention of Wilde's work began to make itself apparent. I am not going into details, but everybody knows what I mean.

It may be interesting if I print in this place portions of a review of the story which appeared in the St. James' Gazette for June 24th, 1890. "Time was (it was in the 70's) when we talked about Mr. Oscar Wilde; time came (it was in the '80's) when he tried to write poetry and, more adventurous, we tried to read it; time is when we had forgotten him—or only remembered him as the late editor of the Woman's World—a part for which he was singularly unfitted if we are to judge him by the work which he has been allowed to publish in Lippincotfs Magazine, and which Messrs. Ward, Lock and Co. have not been ashamed to circulate in Great Britain.

“Not being curious in ordure, and not wishing to offend the nostrils of decent persons, we do not propose to analyse ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray' — that would be to advertise the developments of an esoteric prurience. The puzzle is that a young man of decent parts who enjoyed, when he was at Oxford, the opportunity of associating with gentlemen, should put his name—such as it is—to so stupid and vulgar a piece of work. Let nobody read it in the hope of finding witty paradox or racy wickedness. The writer airs his cheap research among the garbage of the French decadents like any drivelling pedant, and he bores you unmercifully with his prosy rigmaroles about the beauty of the body and the corruption of the soul. The grammar is better than Ouida's—the erudition equal; but in every other respect we prefer the talented lady who broke off with pious aposiopesis when she touched upon the horrors which are described in the pages of Suetonius and Livy—not to mention the yet worse infamies believed by many scholars to be accurately portrayed in the lost works of Plutarch, Venus and Nicodemus—especially Nicodemus.

“Let us take one peep at the young men in Mr. Oscar Wilde's story. Puppy No. 1 is the painter of a picture of 'Dorian Gray' ; Puppy No. 2 is the critic (a courtesy lord, skilled in all the knowledge of the Egyptians and weary of all the sins and pleasures of London) ; Puppy No. 3 is the original, cultivated by Puppy No. 1 with a romantic friendship. The Puppies are all talking: Puppy No. 1 about his heart. Puppy No. 2 about his sins and pleasures and the pleasures of sin, and Puppy No. 3 about himself—always about himself and generally about his face, which is brainless and beautiful. The Puppies appear to fill up the intervals of talk by plucking daisies and playing with them, and sometimes by drinking something with strawberries in it. The youngest Puppy is told he is 'charming' ; but he mustn't sit in the sun for fear of spoiling his complexion. When he is rebuked for being a naughty, wilful boy he makes a pretty moue— this man of twenty! This is how he is addressed by the blase Puppy at their first meeting: 'Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. When your mouth goes your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you. . . . Time is jealous of you and wars against your lilies and roses. You will become sallow and hollow-cheeked and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly.'

"Why, bless our souls! haven't we read something of this kind somewhere in the classics ? Yes, of course we have ! But in what recondite author ? Ah, yes!—no!—yes! it was in Horace! What an advantage it is to have received a classical education, and how it will astonish the Yankees. But we must not forget our Puppies, who have probably occupied their time in lapping 'something with strawberries in it.' Puppy No. 1 (the art puppy) has been telling Puppy No. 3 (the dull puppy) how much he admired him. What is the answer? ‘I am less to you than your ivory Hermes or your silver Fawn. You will like them always. How long will you like me? — till I have my first wrinkle, I suppose. I know now that when one loses one's good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything. ... I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Oh, if it was only the other way! If the picture could only change and I could be always what I am now!'

“No sooner said than done. The picture does change; the original doesn't. Here is a situation for you! Theophile Gautier could have made it romantic—entrancingly beautiful. Mr. Stevenson could have made it convincing, humorous, pathetic. Mr. Anstey could have made it screamingly funny. It has been reserved for Mr. Oscar Wilde to make it dull and nasty. The promising youth plunges into every kind of mean depravity, and ends in being cut by fast women and vicious men ; he finishes with murder. . . . And every wickedness or filthiness committed by Dorian Gray is faithfully registered upon his face in the picture; but his living features are undisturbed and unmarred by his inward vileness. This is the story which Mr. Oscar Wilde has tried to tell. A very lame story it is and very lamely it is told.

“Why has he told it? There are two explanations ; and, so far as we can see, not more than two. Not to give pleasure to his readers; the thing is too clumsy, too tedious and—alas that we should say it—too stupid! Perhaps it was to shock his readers in order that they might cry fie upon him and talk about him. Are we then to suppose that Mr. Oscar Wilde has yielded to the craving for a notoriety which he once earned by talking fiddle-faddle about other men's art, and seize his only chance of recalling it by making himself obvious at the cost of being obnoxious and by attracting the notice which the olfactory sense cannot refuse to the presence of certain self-asserting organisms? That is an uncharitable hypothesis, and we would gladly abandon it. It may be suggested—but is it more charitable?—that he derives pleasure from treating a subject merely because it is disgusting. The phenomenon is not unknown in recent literature, and it takes two forms, in appearance widely separate—in fact, two branches from the same root —a root which draws its life from malodorous putrefaction. One development is found in the Puritan prurience which produced Tolstoy's 'Kreutzer Sonata' and Mr. Stead's famous outbursts. That is odious enough and mischievous enough, and it is rightly execrated because it is tainted with a hypocrisy not the less culpable because charitable people may believe it to be unconscious.

“But is it more odious or more mischievous than the frank paganism which delights in dirtiness and confesses its delight? Still, they are both chips from the same block—‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon' and 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'—and both of them ought to be chucked into the fire — not so much because they are dangerous and corrupt as because they are incurably silly, written by simple poseurs (whether they call themselves puritan or pagan) who know nothing about the life which they affect to have explored and because they are mere catchpenny revelations of the non-existent which, if they reveal anything at all, are revelations only of the singularly unpleasant minds from which they emerge."

The last paragraph is significant as bearing out what I have said with regard to the difference between the public morals of the time when 'The Picture of Dorian Gray" was first published and the public morals of to-day. The review as a whole did not please Wilde, and he wrote to the editor of the St. James' Gazette to say that he was ''quite incapable of understanding how any work of art can be criticised from a moral standpoint."

This, plainly, was no answer to the review, nor can it be answered with reasonable argument. A similarly cutting article which appeared in the Daily Chronicle described ''Dorian Gray" as ''a mixture of dullness and dirt''—''a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadents''—"a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction'' — ''a gloating study of the mental and physical corruption of a fresh, fair and golden youth."

"There is not a single good and holy impulse of human nature, scarcely a fine feeling or instinct that civilisation, art and religion have developed throughout the ages as part of the barriers between Humanity and Animalism that is not held up to ridicule and contempt in 'Dorian Gray,' " continued the Chronicle. To which, and a great deal more of similarly scathing comment, Wilde could muster up no better reply than to say : "My story is an essay on decorative art. It reacts against the crude brutality of plain realism. It is poisonous, if you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at."

Neither the St. James' Gazette nor the Daily Chronicle could foresee that a book which they took to be the outcome of prowlings and garbage-hunting among the French decadents would come to be the gospel and literary stand-by of a world-wide cult of moral and physical leprosy; but the thing has come to pass, and “Dorian Gray" goes on accomplishing its mission, unquestioned by criticism, unchecked by authority, and belauded by every half-baked youth who can earn a precarious shilling by dabbling in ink.

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