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Douglas Anchor


I SUPPOSE that the number of little poets, little fictionists, and, above all, little critics, who imagine that they owe themselves to Wilde is infinite. His peculiar form of humour, which seemed to have genius behind it and so dazzled everybody in Wilde's own time, was soon discovered to be wonderfully easy of imitation, and really to require very little brains in its production.

The consequence has been that everybody who considered himself anybody took up with it, as it were; and it has become so common that it is no longer taken for humour at all. All our dullest young men who happen to be engaged or interested in a branch of the arts have talked, thought and written Wilde for years past. Some middle-aged and elderly gentlemen who began when Wilde was at his zenith are still at it, and apparently nothing will stop them; which means, of course, that humour in England has altogether lost both its point and its usefulness.

The humour of the day has a dull cruelty about it which it formerly lacked. Its object might almost be, not to make people laugh, but to make them cry. The fiercer and more heartless it is, the better it is supposed to be appreciated. Furthermore, instead of being kept in its proper place in the scheme of things, it has been allowed to run riot whenever its authors choose to let it loose.

To be comic in a bitter and insincere way seems to be the ambition of most of the eminent people one can nowadays come across. We have comic judges and comic counsel who manage to keep the King's Courts in ripples of merriment. We have even a comic magistrate or two. In Parliament the mordant humourist and the man who can say sharp things are the only ones to be listened to; sarcastic bishops and witty clerics abound. And as for the gentlemen of the press, they are all bent on the leer, at whatever cost.

If you look closely into these professed or unprofessed fun-makers, you are bound to perceive that the majority of them are little Oscar Wildes to a man. They look on life with a confirmed squint and they cannot see that there is anything human about which it is not desirable that they should make jokes.

Only a little while back we had the spectacle of an English judge indulging his fancy in Wildeisms in the course of a trial for murder. In itself, his Lordship's epigram or paradox, or whatever you like to call it, would help or hurt nobody; but the fact that it was forthcoming in such circumstances indicates pretty plainly the pass to which we have come.

Wilde's answer to everything was by quip or fleer, or a plain perversion of the truth. He had no serious views or intentions about anything, and he considered that the art of life lay in flippancy. People who read him and make a gospel of him can scarcely be expected not to imitate him, and imitate him they certainly do; so that nowadays we have hundreds of little Wildes where formerly there was only one Wilde—and a not over big one at that.

They swarm and spread themselves over everything that is decent, and they parrot Wilde at everybody who comes near them. They have seen it in “Intentions" that there is no sin save stupidity, and that all art is immoral, and they imagine that the world can be run on these two remarkably shallow and unreliable axioms. I am quite free to admit that in a literary sense the world does present the appearance of being so run. The preponderating weight of contemporary authorship and criticism would indeed seem to be on the Wilde side.

This, of course, is unthinkably pitiable, but we cannot get beyond the fact. The reason is not far to seek, and it will be found to lie in the shallowness which always characterises the popular view of large questions. Wilde began by asserting that the only sin was stupidity, yet he ended with the assertion that the supreme vice is shallowness. I do not say that shallowness is by any means the supreme vice ; there can be no doubt, however, that it is the very commonest vice among people who imagine themselves to be thinkers. It is, in consequence of this very circumstance, that to attack Wilde nowadays is to be howled down, just as to have praised him eighteen years ago was to be execrated.

The shallowness of 1895 could not see an inch below the surface of Wilde's glaring viciousness. It went the length of taking his name off his own plays and relegating him to the position of a man who was well-nigh without literary existence. The shallowness of 1914 is unable to look beneath the success, enormous sales, enormous popularity, and what not, which have resulted from the Wilde boom, and it is quite incapable of recognising or appreciating the dangers which lie beneath it. We are asked by tearful counsel and writers of pathetic nonsense for the penny weeklies to forget Wilde's vices.

For my own part, I certainly do not wish to revive them or insist upon them. But I am not prepared to forget them unless his apologists cease to discuss them. Nobody will question that what has been termed the revulsion of feeling in Wilde's favour was largely brought about by the publication of ''De Profundis." This book, which, as I have shown, does not in the least accurately represent Wilde's feelings, owes its success in no small measure to the wide publicity which was given to the statements that it had been written in prison, and that it is a sort of repentant confession and authentic dying speech of its author.

As we have seen, and as will become still more apparent when the unpublished *'De Profundis" sees the light, nothing can be further from the truth. The small fry may go on admiring Wilde, and they may go on pointing to ''De Profundis" as a work of a sainted martyr—the swan-song of a contrite, broken and bleeding heart, and so on, as long as they please. But they will never get away from the hard facts of the case, which are quite the reverse of what has been generally assumed and supposed.