Thursday, December 2, 2010

Oscar Wilde : His Literary Development and Reputation

A Man of Versatile Literary Abilities



Oscar Wilde was a man of versatile talents. He wrote poems, short stories, essays, a novel, reflective and philosophical prose, and plays. His dramas are productions of extraordinary skill and talent which have won a place in the esteem of continental critics scarcely rivalled by that of any contemporary English dramatist. They are all “trivial comedies for serious people”. It pleased Wilde to pose as a trifler ; but he was a trifler who could think, and there is often a wonderful suggestiveness in his lightest banter and his wildest paradox. In non-dramatic prose too Wilde showed the highest skill. He was an artist-in-words in whose person the traditional wit of his countrymen* seemed to be concentrated. His stories and critical essays alike are replete with brilliant epigrams.



His Poems


Wilde’s first publication was a book of poems, which appeared in July, 1881. Having been unable to find a publisher, Wilde had to bring out this book at his own expense. The reviews of this book were unfavourable, and yet five editions of it were sold in a short time. The general feeling about this book at the time was that the poems in it were thin, immoral, and unoriginal. A copy of this book was sent by Wilde to the library of the Oxford Union Debating Society but was returned to him as not being fit to be accepted for the library.


His First Play “Vera”, an Abortive Attempt


Wilde was not so foolish as to believe that he could make much money out of a volume of verse. Early in 1810 he bad written a play called Vera, or the Nihilists, a small edition of which was printed for private circulation at his own expense in the autumn of the same year. Nihilism in Russia had been a favourite topic among readers of books and newspapers for some time, and Wilde showed where his sympathies lay, though he was careful to point out that the play dealt with men and women, not with political theories. In March, 1881, the Czar,’ Alexander II, was assassinated, and the interest in Russian Nihilism greatly increased. Wilde thought that there was a good chance of making money by a production of his play on the stage. The play was announced for production at the Adelphi Theatre in December. Then something happened to prevent it. The reason for the cancellation has never been explicitly stated. But it is believed that the withdrawal of the play was in deference to the feelings of the Prince of Wales who was very kindly disposed towards Wilde and who was closely related to the new Czar’s wife. Wilde did not wish to hurt the feelings of the Prince of Wales who had met him on several occasions. In any case, critics and biographers of Wilde have dismissed this play as an immature and worthless melodrama, showing nothing of the quality which subsequently made its author famous as a dramatist.


“The Duchess of Padua”, Another Failure


In March, 1883, Wilde completed the writing of a play which he had undertaken to write for Miss Mary Anderson*. He had already taken an advance of a thousand dollars from her, and she had promised a further amount of four thousand dollars if and when the play was accepted. However, Mary Anderson found the play unacceptable, describing it as “rather tedious”. At the end of his life, Wilde admitted that this play, which wits called The Duchess of Padua, and which was a tragedy in blank verse, was unfit for publication–– “the only one of my works that comes under that category.” And, indeed, there is little to be said in favour of this play. In many places the blank verse faintly echoes. Shakespeare’s while the comic passages are depressing. It was once produced in Germany, but without much success. The only other production of this play took place in New York where it ran for three weeks in 1891, without the author’s name and under the title of Guido Ferranti.


“The Harlot’s House” and “The Sphinx”


At about the same time, Wilde wrote a poem called The Harlot’s House. This poem caused some stir at the time because it was not the custom of poets of that period to write on brothels. Wilde also continued to work on another poem called The Sphinx, the idea for which had first come to him at Oxford, and at which he worked intermittently for ten years before it was published in 1894. The Sphinx is written in luxuriant language employing many unfamiliar and strange-sounding words, some of which Wilde used because he liked strange-sounding words, and others because, having used one, he had often to find a rhyme for it, and only succeeded in doing so after long searching through a _rhyming ; dictionary and consulting friends. The metre used is that of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and the opening is almost a parody of Edgar Allan Poe in The Raven. The reviews of The Sphinx were, on the whole, unfavourable.


“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories”


Wilde’s first appearance before the public as a writer of any individuality was in a periodical which printed his short story udder the heading “The Canterville Ghost” in February, 1887. It is an unequal story which begins as a social satire, continues as pure burlesque, and ends in an atmosphere of romantic sentiment. Thus, the main aspects of Wilde’s nature––his quick intelligence, his sense of fun, and his emotional unreality––are revealed briefly and in combination in this earliest attempt at fiction. He wrote three more short tales, all of which appeared in magazines. All these four stories were afterwards collected and published in 1891 under the title, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. These stories are as popular today as when they were written. Wilde himself had an excellent opinion of the longest story in this collection, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”, which is a resume of his own personality. This story contained some typical epigrams by his pen, one or two of which may be quoted here :


“Nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion.”


“Surely Providence can resist temptation by this time.”


“Not being a genius, he had no enemies.”


In spite of all this, contemporary reviews were not quite favourable. One reviewer, for instance, wrote : “‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’, and its three companion stories, will not add to their author’s reputation. Much the best of the stories is the fourth, the short sketch entitled ‘A Model Millionaire,’ though even this brief tale is spoilt by such commonplace would be witticisms as ‘the poor should be practical and prosaic,’ and ‘it is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.’ There is much more of this commonplace padding in the story that gives its name to the book.”


“The Happy Prince and Other Tales”


In May, 1888 The Happy Prince, and Other Tales was published, and Wilde was seen in a fresh role of a writer of fairy-stories. These stories have now joined those of Hans Andersen* and Grimm** as being among the great fairy-stories of the world. They are almost more in-the nature of poems in prose than stories, particularly “The Nightingale and the Rose”. Wilde shared Andersen’s preference for a pathetic conclusion but, instead of suffering it as pathos for its own sake, he used it as a tragic height of noble self-destruction a romantic acceptance of death as a nobler form of existence. Thus the Happy Prince and the swallow sacrifice themselves to the poor ; the nightingale kills herself to further the love of others ; and the Selfish Giant dies so that the Christ-child may receive him into paradise.


“The House of Pomegranates”


The fairy-tales which Wilde wrote over the next three years were collected in 1891 and published as The House of Pomegranates. In this volume the tendencies apparent in the earlier volume become still more marked. Wilde himself expressed a preference for the story called “The Young King” in this second volume of fairy-tales. “The Happy Prince” and “The Young King” are, on the whole, Wilde’s two most effective stories. A noteworthy point about these stories is that Wilde here shows a tendency to use words merely for the sake of their sounds. Two stories, “The Birthday of the Infants” and “The Fisherman and His Soul” are full of descriptions of jewels, flowers, clothes, furniture, fruits. embroideries, and so on. He took a sensuous pleasure in all this ; but the strange thing is that he seemed to think that he was producing literature, possibly because Pater and Flaubert had done something of the sort. In style he thought “The Birthday of the Infanta” to be his best story.


“Intentions”, a Book of Critical Essays


Considering his natural indolence and his love of company, Wilde was pretty active during the four years, 1887 to 1890. He reviewed books all the time edited a magazine for two of these years, wrote a volume of short stories, two volumes of fairy tales, a novel, and six long essays. Four of the essays were collected and published under the title of Intentions in 1891. This volume gives us some idea of Wilde’s _critical theories. According to the views expressed in thee, essays, art is not dependent upon Nature ; art is not an imitation of life. In many respects tite pleasures art offers are greater than those found in life and Nature. Therefore it is absurd too criticize works o art adversely for being, unnatural or unlife-like. Realism is a mode of expression without justification. The artist should be imaginative and creative his work should be as far removed from mundane life as possible, and indeed his whole cultural climate would be improved if people had more respect for beauty, splendour, and the exotic, and less fox scientific truth. Bet the artist is not the man who does most to preserve art in society. Here the critic has to play as important role. The critic is an indispensable middle-man. It may also be pointed out that two of the major essays in this volume are written in the form of witty dialogues. These two essays are : “The Decay of Lying” and “The critic as Artist”.


Two Essays which Did Much Harm to Wilde


The two essays which harmed Wilde most were, however, not included in the volume called Intentions. One was “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” In this essay Wilde offered the idea that Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed to a boy-actor of the name of Willie Hughes. Many people hinted that this essay contained an implicit suggestion that Shakespeare had homosexual tendencies. The other essay was called “The ; Soul of Man under Socialism”. This essay caused the artistocratic ladies : and gentlemen whom he, had charmed at dinner-parties to regard him with some ; suspicion. Socialism was an alarming word in the nineteenth century. But a good deal of this essay deals with questions concerning’ art and the artist, because Wilde recognized that the arts are the only civilising influences in the world, and that without them people are barbarians. He knew that an aesthetic education, which humaniz’s people, is far more important even for politicians than an economic education, which does the opposite. Since institutions_ are made for met, not men for institutions, he advocated socialism solely because he believed that it would lead to individualism. Property, he said, should be abolished because possessions cramp individuality : “The true perfection of man lies, not in what man has, but in what man is.” Poverty too should be abolished because it, debates people and retards their individual development. This essay did him a greater disservice with the governing classes than anything else he could trove said or done and, at a time when they might have lent him a helping hand, they turned a cold shoulder.


His Novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”


The climax of the years 1887-91 was the publication of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, first as a serial in a magazine, and then as an ornate volume. This was Wilde’s most ambitious project till then, and he took it very seriously. This boot was regarded by most people: as extremely immoral, and Wilde became a target of a torrent of abuse. The English Press was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the book. The ostensible objection was that the book was prurient, vicious, coarse, and prude. But perhaps the real reason for the attack was that it did much to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian Englishmen. Wilde defended his book vigorously in letters to the Press. Nevertheless, Wilde’s novel did him a good deal of harm. Hating the book, people hated the author ; and the journalists became thenceforward among his bitterest enemies. In the Queensberry case it was used as evidence against him, because it was alleged to contain homosexual suggestions.


“Lady Windermere’s Fan”, the First Major Success in Wilde’s Career


In February, 1892, Wilde embarked upon the succession of triumphs that were to be his for the next three years, with the production of his first successful play, Lady Windermere’s Fan. The story in this play is that of a woman who ruins her own reputation in order to save that of the daughter who is unaware of the relationship between them. Wilde himself described it as “one of those modern drawing-room plays with pink lamp-shades.” The play got a most enthusiastic reception from the fashionable audience which had gathered to see whether Wilde was as brilliant a dramatist as he was a conversationalist. They were not disappointed. As epigram followed epigram and tense situations followed one another in rapid succession, the audience grew more and more enthusiastic and, at the end, the audience in thunderous voices asked for the author to appear on the, stage. Wilde walked on to the stage with a lighted cigarette in his hand, bowed, and expressed his delight at the success of his play. The audience was immensely pleased by the short speech that he made on this occasion, but not so the critics who were deeply shocked by Wilde’s appearing on the stage, smoking a cigarette.


“A Woman of No Importance”, Another Success


Wilde’s next play was A Woman of No Importance which was produced on the 19th April, 1891, at the Haymarket Theatre, London. The plot of this play is the only one of Wilde’s major plays which is definitely dated in so far as at the end it produces a situation which, owing to changes in the law, would ring false today. Mrs. Arbuthnot refuses to marry Lord Illingworth, father of her illegitimate child, because of her contempt for the father. Now-a-days, by marrying Lord Illingworth she would have legitimized her son and made him heir to the title––a step which any fond mother would have considered it her duty to take. In spite of this, and because of the brilliant dialogue, the play continue to be performed on the English stage from time to time. A Women of No Importance was an immediate success and was received enthusiastically by the audience on the opening night. At thee end, the audience rose to its feet and made the theatre ring with cries of “Author”. As for the critics, they were far more tolerant of this play than they had been of the previous one. Wilde’s reputation as a wit and a conversationalist had now travelled across the English Channel, and his name became famous among the French literary and artistic circles.


“Aw Ideal Husband”, Also a Success


Wilde’s third important play was An Ideal Husband which was also produced at the Haymarket Theatre, London. It was an immediate success, both from a financial and a social point of view. The Prince of Wales, who already knew and liked Wilde, was present on the opening night, and he warmly congratulated the author. The play, though not so dramatic as the previous two plays, was better constructed and showed that Wilde was getting a firmer grip of the technique of the theatre. There was, as usual, an abundance of paradoxes and epigrams in the play.


“The Importance of Being Earnest”, His Masterpiece


The next, last, and most important of Wilde’s plays was The Importance of Being Earnest which was produced on the 14th February, 1895 at the St. James’s Theatre, and was received with rapturous delight by both audiences and critics. With this play, Wilde had conquered London after a long and difficult struggle. He had now reached the summit of his success and fame. The Importance of Being Earnest at the St. James’s Theatre, and An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket Theatre (and also at a theatre in New York), were all drawing crowded and enthusiastic audiences, and actor-managers everywhere were besieging him with requests to write plays for them. He had, indeed, ideas for several plays in his head, but then came a catastrophe in the form of the litigation with the Marquis of Queensberry which ruined Wilde in every possible way.


“De Profundis”


During the period of his imprisonment, Wilde wrote a work in the form of a long letter addressed to his friend, Alfred Douglas, portions of which were published in 1905 by Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, who gave it the title of De Profundis (meaning, “from the depths”). In this work, Wilde tried, to explain his conduct. He held Alfred Douglas largely responsible for his downfall. At the same time this letter is Wilde’s apologia and a general confession. Certain; portions of this letter are very moving. For instance, the following extract from it has become famous :


“The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliance, intellectual daring ; I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art ; I altered the minds of men and the colours of things. There was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder ...I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram. Along with these things, I had things that were different. I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or, madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me and passed on. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed you* to dominate me, and your father to frighten me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now––absolute humility, just as there is only one thing for you, absolute humility also.


De Profundis also contains some of the best of Wilde’s mystical writing. However, excellent though parts of this work are, the work is emotionally unconvincing. This is how a _great literary historian** comments on this work : “De Profundis, the effusion in which his ulcerated heart pours forth bitterness, pride, and self-pity, rather than remorse and humility, is a strange work,’ which strikes the reader without touching him ; the intuition of what purification by pain can be is present and alive in these pages f but it only throws light on the secret joy of the artist who in renunciation discovers a new means of intense self-expression.”


“The Ballad of Reading Gael


When, after his release from jail, Wilde stayed in a village in France, he wrote a long poem with the title, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. This poem was published in England in February, 1898, under the pseudonym C.3.3. The pseudonym referred to the number Wilde had borne in Reading Gaol and meant Block C, Third cell on the Third floor. Wilde made use of a pseudonym because he thought that the use of his real name, which had become notorious, would kill the poem. On the whole, the reviewers commented favourably on this poem, and some of them were generous to the point of enthusiasm. Several editions of it were sold out in a, short time. In the seventh edition, Wilde’s real name was used in brackets after C.3.3. Since Wilde’s death this poem has become one of the most widely-known works of English verse in the world. Its success was too late to help its author socially or financially, but the work has undoubtedly been one of the foundation-stones of Wilde’s posthumous reputation. The Ballad stands in a class of its own among Wilde’s poems, and its more enthusiastic admirers have claimed it to be one of the greatest works in the ballad form ever composed. For once he had something to say, something urgent and deeply-felt to communicate. It expresses the mounting horror of the fellow-prisoners of a soldier, condemned to death for murder, as they watch him during his last days and share the terror of his last night. Here is a comment that was made on this poem by a contemporary reviewer :


“Its subject-matter is simple. A soldier is in jail under sentence of death for murder. One of his fellow-prisoners records the effect upon himself on learning the soldier’s fate, his growing horror as the morning of execution draws near, the terrors of the night immediately preceding it and the emotions that follow. The document is authentic : hence its worth.”


The following comment on The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis by a literary historian* is also noteworthy


How far Wilde’s punishment and sufferings affected his character and conduct we cannot say ; but their effect upon his literary work admits of no question. In its, sincerity, its simple emotional power, its stern seriousness, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is in startling contrast with Wilde’s earlier verse. No posing here, no facile imitativeness, no playing with sensation. Wilde has been brought face to face with the hard, brutal realities of life, and as an artist he is incomparably the better for his awful experience.’ This is shown not only in The Ballad but in De Profundis––a, personal document, as intimate as De Quincey’s Confessions, more sincere, and fully as effective as a piece of fine imaginative prose.

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