Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, June 1913

The Works of Oscar Wilde

page 31

The Works of Oscar Wilde.

Almost every great author either tells us himself, or puts into the mouth of one of his characters, his ideas on literature, whether Art should be for arts, sake, whether Realism—life as it is—should be resented, or whether a work, realistic or imaginative, should have a moral value. Oscar Wilde is no exception to this rule. In his collection of essays, entitled "Intentions." he gives us his views at length. When an author tells us his principles, we naturally expect him more or less to carry them out; but knowing Oscar wilde's delight in paradox, his joy in saying brilliantly exactly what he does not mean, one would not be surprised if his works were direct negations of his creed. But as it happens, they are not, with the exception of his very last works, and these were written in the time of his great unhappiness, and so might almost be the work of another man.

In his article, "The Decay of Living," Wilde pleads for the pre-eminence imagination over realism—he was the prophet of Art for Art's sake, the passionate lover of Flaubert, the severe critic of Zola. He acknowledges that life and nature may sometimes be used as art's rough material, but says emphatically that Art should never express anything but itself. So he never sought, in any of his works, to picture life exactly as it was—sometimes he did it in spite of himself, but it was not his aim. All he required in literature was, distinction, charm, beauty and imaginative power, and all these we find in his words. For distinction some of his witty passages cannot be excelled; some of his articles, and some of his fanciful plays have lines of great charm, but his imaginative power was not as great as he himself considered. For he was without doubt a borrower. Even his brilliant talk often contained epigrams coined by his wittiest friends, and it is said this fact occasioned a quarrel between him and Whistler, the famous artist; one of whose bon-mots he claimed as his own. So in some of his works, notably Salome, there are clear traces of his borrowing propensity. One critic said of page 32 this play that it was a mixture of Flaubert and Maeterlinck, and described Wilde as a jackdaw picking up anything that attracted him by its shine and glitter; for such his taste was admirable.

But although he sometimes borrowed, Wilde's work is wonderfully original, for such was his personality. His talk was brilliant — there his individuality had full play. He says in one of his essays that the object of an artist is to express his own individuality—but it is a fact that the greatest artists strive rather to express their ideas than their personalities; they leave the discovery of the latter to the critic. But Wilde did not, and so great many of his works, and especially his modern-life plays, contain an Oscar Wilde; his brilliance, his cynicism crop up time after time as attributes of his chief characteristic. In "A Woman of No Importance" Lord Illingworth is a case in point, and in lighter, less cynical way Algernon, in that delightful "trivial comedy for serious people," as the author calls it, "The Importance of Being Ernest."

Most of Wilde's works were received at first with general ridicule and condemnation. They were somethingout of the common, and many of his sentiments were distasteful to the great mass of readers. His plays even were but grudgingly praised, but praise could not be denied, for they were great stage successes. With his very first attempt, "Lady Windermere's Fan," Wilde showed himself a master in dramatic situation and dialogue. His other beast plays are "The Ideal Husband," "The Woman of No Importance," and "The Importance of being Ernest." Another class of play Wilde wrote—tragedies. They deal mostly with times of long ago, and are rather exotic and fanciful. One might mention "The Duchess of Padua," "A Florentine Tragedy," and the much-discussed "Salome." This last-named has passages of great beauty, and was given by Wilde to the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt, but though she began to rehearse the play, it was not allowed to be performed in England; nevertheless it has since been acted there, and is famous in every European capital.

page 33

Turning from his plays to the essays, those in "Intentions" are written in his characteristically brilliant paradoxical style, and contain much clever criticism of literature and art. But the works in which his creed breaks down, the works in which he came to life and sought to express his ideas, and not his personality, the works he wrote for a purpose, are those of his last days. I refer to the beautiful sad "De Profundis," written during his imprisonment, and to "The Ballad of Reading Jail," written in 1898, two years before his death. In "De Profundis," that cry from the bottom of his heart, he says : "Prison life makes one see people and things as they really are." He lives with himself now that he is cut off from the world, and now he begins to know himself. As it was twilight always in his cell, so it was twilight in his heart, and he learnt that somewhere, hidden away in his nature, like treasure in a field, was Humility. The book ends with the acknowledgment that on his release Society will offer no place to him, but he hopes that Nature will give him a cleft in which to hide—that she will cleanse him in great waters, and with bitter herbs make him whole.

"The Ballad of Reading Jail" was the result of his imprisonment, and is a bitter protest against the cruelty of prison life and the horror of death by hanging. He describes the prisoners :

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb,
With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
The slippery, asphalt yard.
Silently we went round and round,
And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
And through each hollow mind
The memory of dreadful things,
Rushed like a dreadful wind,
And Horror stalked before each man,
And terror crept behind.

He describes the gallows reared by the prison-wall, the horror of the other prisoners, the condemned man's page 34 dread of death; and lastly, the horrible quick-lime grave, without a name, wherein the dead man lies. The poem, in its bitter hatred of the torture of imprisonment, inspired other works, notably Galworthy's "Justice," and so Oscar Wilde did, what in his early days he never dreamed of doing, draw attention to a social defect, and prayed for its reform. Anyone who has read only Wilde's plays of early poems, should turn to these last two sadder works, for there they will find the author writing of what he felt, and his sorrow and sincerity will give them a higher and kinder impression of this witty and brilliant writer.

M. L. N.