Oscar Wilde—we have only to hear the name to anticipate that what will be quoted as his will change conventional solemnities to frivolous insights. So it was in his lifetime, and so it is eighty-four years after his death. Wit, grace, unexpectedness: these are his essence, yet what attracts us too is, as Borges declares, that Wilde is almost always right.
In the process by which Oscar Wilde became Oscar Wilde, his parents must be allowed to have given their impetus. The family into which he was born was intellectually distinguished, and it was also exciting. Sir William Wilde, his father, started the first eye and ear hospital in Great Britain, and as a surgeon developed these specialties beyond anyone before him. He also trained his own eye on Irish archaeological remains, and his ear on folklore, so that he brilliantly classified and cataloged the antiquities now in the National Museum of Ireland, and collected superstitions and folk tales that might otherwise have been lost. Along with his distinctions and honors went something else: as a young man, before his marriage, he had begotten like some Regency rake three illegitimate children. The secret of who their mothers were was well kept. Oscar Wilde knew his father’s children, a fact that accounts for the many foundlings and mysteries of birth in his writings. There was nothing predictable about the Wildes’ family life.
As for his mother, Lady Wilde, she had broken with her family’s Unionist politics by writing vehement poetry in support of the Irish nationalist movement. Her name was plain Jane, her pen name was Speranza, because of a high-flown genealogical fantasy that her family, the Elgees, were related to Dante’s family, the Alighieris. In writing to Longfellow, Dante’s translator, she signed herself Francesca Speranza Wilde. Later on she became less perfervid as a nationalist; she refused to read the proofs when some of her poems were republished, saying, “I cannot tread the ashes of that once glowing past.” But she remained immoderate. At her salon in Dublin, and later in London, she cut a figure in increasingly outlandish costumes, festooned with headdresses and heavy jewelry, and always capable of making extravagant statements. As her son commented later, “Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.” This must serve as a general defense for her conscious rhetoric, and his too. When she moved to London, and was asked about her poetry, she sighed, “My singing robes are trailed in London clay.” When someone asked her to receive a young woman who was “respectable,” she replied, “You must never employ that description in this house. Only tradespeople are respectable.”
Oscar Wilde remembered this when, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell asks, “Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education?” Canon Chasuble replies indignantly, “She is the most cultivated of ladies, and the very picture of respectability.” “It is obviously the same person,” says Lady Bracknell. Oscar Wilde once announced that his mother and he had decided to found a society for the suppression of virtue, and it says something for their kinship of minds that either of them might have originated the idea. Lady Wilde delighted Sir William Hamilton, the mathematician, when he was showing her through his big house in Dublin, by saying, “I hope it’s haunted.” In a more serious moment, when Sir William Wilde was accused in court of having sexually misconducted himself with a woman patient, Lady Wilde—asked why she had taken no notice of the woman’s charges against her husband—replied majestically, “Because I was not interested.”
That the son of such flamboyant parents should himself have been flamboyant is no surprise. Wilde was kept at home until he was nine, under private tutors, and then was sent to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, where he remained until he was sixteen. About these seven years he had nothing to say later, except to reduce them by admitting to only “about one year” at Portora. He must have felt like Mrs. Cheveley in An Ideal Husband, who says, “I have forgotten my schooldays. I have a vague impression that they were detestable.” Detested Portora nevertheless schooled him in Latin and Greek and sent him on, like other Protestant boys, to Trinity College, Dublin. There he distinguished himself in classics under the tutelage of two rival eminences, Professors Mahaffy and Tyrrell. But after two and a half years Wilde suddenly broke with the expected pattern by taking an examination for a demyship (scholarship) at Magdalen College, Oxford, and winning it. Professor Mahaffy is reputed to have remarked to him, “You’re not quite clever enough for us here, Oscar. Better run up to Oxford.”
And so, in October 1874, Wilde traveled from Dublin to the most ancient of British universities. He remained at Oxford for the four years of the Greats course, and a little longer, studying classical history and philosophy as well as literature. An amorphous twenty-year-old boy when he arrived, he was a formed young man of twenty-four when he left. “I have never sowed wild oats,” he wrote in a notebook, “I have planted a few orchids.” The flower metaphor took firm root.
For Irishmen, Oxford is to the mind what Paris is to the body. Wilde was as receptive as anyone else to this fabled equation. The university, gathering in a disproportionate number of the best talents, treated them with a mixture of tenderness and rigor, and dispatched them into life forever classified as brilliant, clever, or just average, but Oxford average. The students felt at once affection for this mighty mother and awe of her power to define their lives.
Wilde had no reason to regard himself as a Lucien de Rubempré come from the provinces to find in Oxford the great world. Dublin was not Skibbereen. He already knew many Englishmen—talented people from England were always attending his mother’s Saturday afternoons—and his family name was English. Many of his relations lived in England, and so did friends like Bunbury, who would unwittingly lend his name to Algernon’s Bunburying shenanigans in The Importance of Being Earnest. The antiquity of Oxford could not have overwhelmed a young man who had accompanied his father in the inspection of prehistoric cromlechs and barrows. Yet Oxford still seemed to be, in Dryden’s words, Athens, and everywhere else Thebes. “The most beautiful spot in England,” Wilde said of it. Henry James, after a visit there the year before Wilde came up, commented on “the peculiar air of Oxford—the air of liberty to care for intellectual things, assured and secured by machinery which is in itself a satisfaction to sense.” Wilde put it more lyrically: he said that being at Oxford was for him “the most flower-like time” in his life.
Still, nostalgia is one thing, and the student world of old Etonians and Wyckhamists and Harrovians and inchoate Tories another. Wilde presents himself in his writings with a high polish which has been the envy of young people since. But at the start he committed his gaucheries. A friend of his at Balliol, Courtenay Bodley, whom he had met the summer before starting Oxford, drew a malicious but probably accurate portrait of Wilde’s early days as an undergraduate. The first time that Wilde dined in hall, according to Bodley, he happened to be seated next to a guest from another college—an athlete in his third year and therefore someone not to be taken lightly. Wilde talked well, and feeling that he had ingratiated himself, as soon as the meal was over presented the athlete with his card, containing his name and college newly printed. By the unsurmisable rules of Oxford, this was something that was not done.
Rebuffed on this occasion, and no doubt on others, Wilde determined to be ahead of rather than behind the English. His Dublin accent disappeared in favor of that stately and distinct English, phrased in perfect sentences, which so astonished Yeats and others later. He developed a great appetite for formal wear, and told a friend, “If I were alone on a desert island and had my things, I should dress for dinner every night.” (Who would cook for him he did not consider.) For daytime, he put aside his Dublin clothing and became sportier than his friends by donning tweed jackets with even larger checks than theirs, bird’s-eye-blue neckties, tall collars, curly-brimmed hats balanced on one ear. His thick brown hair was cut acceptably short at Speirs’ Barber Shop in the High. This was only the first phase of his sartorial revolution; it would be succeeded a couple of years later by a more sophisticated dandyism, involving a coat cut to resemble a cello and similar flourishes.
His appearance and his conversation quickly made Wilde conspicuous. He annoyed thereby those who hated conspicuousness, but amused and pleased his friends, who recognized in him an element of self-mocking excess. There are many examples of his conviviality with contemporaries and of his insolence to his putative superiors. One report by a proctor, dated November 1, 1875, complained that Wilde and three other men had been found dining at the Clarendon—evidently a heinous offense. The proctor took their names and instructed them to finish their meal as quickly as possible and report to his college, Jesus. They kept asking him, “Shall we report to Jesus?” until he departed, much annoyed. He returned a quarter of an hour later to find them still there. “They were, if possible, still ruder than before,” he noted. “Wilde strutted about the room with his hat on”—no doubt one of those curly-brimmed ones of which he was proud—until the proctor instructed him to remove it. The proctor proposed that they should all be gated, that is, confined to their colleges.
Wilde seems to have enjoyed subverting authorities. At the examination in Divinity which he had to take at the end of his second year, he went up to the proctor to obtain the examination paper. The proctor inquired, “Are you taking Divinity or Substituted Matter?” (The substituted matter was for non-Anglicans.) “Oh, the Forty-Nine Articles,” Wilde replied indifferently. “The Thirty-Nine, you mean, Mr. Wilde,” said the proctor. “Oh, is it really?” asked Wilde in his weariest manner. (He would talk later of the Twenty Commandments; by miscounting them he discounted them.) The examiner on this occasion was W.H. Spooner, later Warden of New College. Spooner reproved Wilde for being late, to which Wilde replied airily, “You must excuse me. I have no experience of these pass examinations,” meaning that an examination where one simply passed or failed was beneath his notice.
Spooner, himself in orders and a nephew of the Archbishop of Canterbury, reprimanded him by telling him to copy out the twenty-sixth chapter of Acts in Greek. After a time, seeing that Wilde was toiling away industriously, Spooner relented, “You have done enough.” But Wilde continued to write. Spooner said, “Did you hear me tell you, Mr. Wilde, that you needn’t write any more?” “Oh yes, I heard,” said Wilde, “but I was so interested in what I was copying that I could not leave off. It was all about a man named Paul, who went on a voyage and was caught in a terrible storm, and I was afraid that he would be drowned; but do you know, Mr. Spooner, he was saved; and when I found that he was saved, I thought of coming to tell you.”
Another version of this incident says that Spooner asked Wilde to construe from Greek those verses in Matthew which record the sale of the Saviour by Judas for thirty pieces of silver. After Wilde had construed a few verses, Spooner stopped him, “Very good, that will do, Mr. Wilde.” “Hush, hush,” replied the candidate, raising an admonitory finger, “let us proceed and see what happened to the unfortunate man.” It is hard to choose between legends but clear that Wilde was already making his own folklore. It was also clear that the examiner was not amused. “I was ploughed, of course,” Wilde informed a friend. He had to take the examination over again.
On another occasion, it was his turn to read the lesson at Magdalen College chapel, on a day when Queen Victoria’s youngest son Leopold was present. Wilde leafed over the pages and began in a languorous voice, “The Song of Solomon.” The dean of the college swooped down from his stall and thrusting his beard into Wilde’s face said, “You have the wrong lesson, Mr. Wilde. It is Deuteronomy 16.” In later life Wilde remembered that he had always read the lesson with an air of skepticism and was invariably reproved for “levity at the lectern.”
He was similarly intransigent when he was haled before the vice-chancellor’s court in November 1877 for nonpayment of two debts to shopkeepers. Wilde was fined a pound for one debt but three pounds for the other, which was larger. He thereupon wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor protesting the larger fine as “extortionate and exorbitant,” and suggesting that “the Vice-Chancellor’s court must be conducted on a system which requires the investigation of the University Commission.” In all the long history of the vice-chancellor’s court, probably no other undergraduate had ever alleged that it was corrupt.
Wilde did not, however, allow himself to do badly in his first public examinations, which came in 1876, at the end of his second year. Secretly he must have studied a little, for he got a first. He was pleased to demonstrate his academic brililance, but aspired to larger distinction. For this he knew he must sort out the intellectual universe with which Oxford confronted him. To Wilde the two principal people at Oxford, and the ones he said he most wanted to meet, were John Ruskin and Walter Pater. For an undergraduate with artistic tastes, they were the inevitable centers of attention. Ruskin, at fifty-five, occupied the respected position of Slade Professor of Fine Art; Pater, thirty-five, a fellow of Brasenose College, tried but failed to become his successor. Wilde cannot have known in advance how opposed to each other they were: Pater, once Ruskin’s disciple, disagreed with his master without naming him; Ruskin loftily ignored Pater’s aspirations to rival him.
Wilde did not meet Pater in person until his third year at Oxford, but during his first term he came under the spell of his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, published a few months before. He never ceased to speak of it as “my golden book,” and in De Profundis said it was the “book which has had such a strange influence over my life.” Much of it, especially the celebrated Conclusion, he had by heart. Pater declared that, life being a drift of momentary acts, we must cultivate each moment to the full, seeking “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself” as our goal. Dorian Gray embraces this doctrine as his own in exactly these words without acknowledgment, as if to his other crimes he was adding that of plagiarism. Success in life is to “burn always with this hard gemlike flame,” said Pater—Wilde now adopted “flamelike” as one of his favorite adjectives. We can burn variously, through the passions (of which Pater strongly approved), through political or religious enthusiasms or what he called the religion of humanity, and, best of all, through art. To expose all the sensibilities as fully as possible was an ideal that attracted Wilde, though he indicated reservations when he had Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray talk this kind of Paterese to Dorian Gray with evident ill effects.
Ruskin had made England art-conscious by a different approach, in which morality played a major part. Artists could display their morality by fidelity to nature, and by eschewing self-indulgent sensuality. The word “aesthetic” became a bone of contention between Ruskin’s disciples and Pater’s. Though Ruskin sometimes used the term favorably, to cover various aspects of artistic discrimination, he was enraged when it was used to justify amoral art. As early as 1846 he denounced the aesthetic as a slogan that degraded the arts into mere amusements, “ticklers and fanners of the soul’s sleep.” But in 1868 Pater commended the Pre-Raphaelites for being “The Aesthetic School of Poetry.” Responding to Pater and his followers in 1883, Ruskin declared that the growing habit of calling aesthetic what was only “pigs-flavouring of pigs’ wash” argued a “moral deficiency.” His art criticism always harked back to the medieval period, with its faith and its Gothic, while he argued that the Renaissance, the more it bloomed, the more it decayed. Wilde accepted this point of view in De Profundis. But what he read in Pater was different: for Pater the medieval period was valued only as an anticipation of the Renaissance, and the best of the Renaissance was still going on. As for decadence, Pater did not shrink from welcoming what he called “a refined and comely decadence.”
Wilde could see that he was being offered not only two very different doctrines, but two very different vocabularies. Though both Ruskin and Pater favored beauty, for Ruskin it had to be allied with good, for Pater it might have ever so slight a touch of evil. Pater rather liked the Borgias, for example. Ruskin spoke of faith; Pater spoke of mysticism, as if for him religion became bearable only when it overflowed into excess. Ruskin appealed to conscience, Pater to imagination. Ruskin invoked disciplined restraint, Pater allowed for a pleasant drift. What Ruskin loathed as vice, Pater caressed as wantonness.
Wilde was as much concerned for his soul as for his body, and however titillated he was by Pater, he looked to Ruskin for spiritual guidance. He made a point of attending Ruskin’s lectures on Florentine art. Ruskin was apt to interrupt his description of a painting by exhorting his hearers to do something, such as to fall in love at the first opportunity. He soon reminded them that the previous spring he had proposed that instead of developing their bodies in pointless games, in “fruitless slashing of the river,” in learning “to leap and to row, to hit a ball with a bat,” they should join him in improving the countryside. Where there had been nothing but a swamp in Ferry Hinksey, they should help him to construct a flower-bordered country road. It was to be an ethical adventure like building a Gothic cathedral, rather than narcissistic athleticism.
Although Wilde found rising at dawn more difficult than most men—his mother never rose till afternoon—he overcame his languor for Ruskin’s sake. Later he bragged comically that he had enjoyed the distinction of being allowed to fill “Mr. Ruskin’s especial wheel-barrow,” and of being instructed by the master himself in the mysteries of wheeling such an object from place to place. The road was then in process of being paved, digging having been accomplished the previous spring. It was not much of a road, but it was for Wilde the road to Ruskin, who invited his sweaty workers to breakfast after their exertions. The work went on to the end of term, after which Ruskin was off to Venice, and Wilde could again lie late abed, as the road for its part slowly sank from sight. Traces of it can still be seen.
His friendship with Ruskin was gratifying and instructive. He would write to him later, “The dearest memories of my Oxford days are my walks and talks with you, and from you I learned nothing but what was good.” During his early days at Oxford he seems consciously to have imitated Ruskin’s views. Ruskin had said, “At Paddington station I felt as if in hell.” Wilde as his disciple told friends that all the factory chimneys and vulgar workshops should be taken up and placed on some out-of-the-way island. “I would give Manchester back to the shepherds and Leeds to the stockfarmers,” he magnanimously announced. Thanks to Ruskin, Wilde did not fall into the individualistic aestheticism favored by Pater; from the start he argued as Ruskin did that art had a role in the improvement of society.
For Wilde, by the time he reached Oxford, aestheticism was a familiar subject, bordering on staleness. At Trinity College he had already been caricatured as an indignant aesthete, and his brother Willie had read a paper to an undergraduate society—of which Oscar was also a member—on the subject of “Aesthetic Morality.” Lady Wilde had translated an interminable book from the German which portrayed the presumption and failure of a kind of aesthete. In fact, the use of the term aestheticism was as controversial in the 1870s as is that of structuralism or post-structuralism today. Wilde speaks in a letter of 1875 with some irony of a classmate as an aesthetic young man, and his literary tastes were at times toward something quite unaesthetic and earnest, such as Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which he praised inordinately.
During his second year at Oxford Wilde read with great amusement the attack on aestheticism and particularly on Pater’s form of it in W.H. Mallock’s The New Republic. Wilde could see that aestheticism was going out as much as it was coming in; though he adopted many of its interests, such as tints and textures, he did so always with something of his mother’s high-spiritedness, which while excessive, poked fun at its own excess. It was in this tone that he made his famous remark, “I find it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.” Four years later Punch would take this up as part of its campaign against aestheticism, but Wilde had obviously said it with some self-mockery. Still, to live up to one’s blue china is not so absurd as it may sound—we have all much to learn from our bric-a-brac.
The letters he wrote at Oxford talk less about aestheticism than they do about Catholicism. Wilde knew that Ruskin had spent the summer before they met in a monastic cell at Assisi. Pater used to visit Roman Catholic churches to admire the ceremonies and decorations, and in Marius the Epicurean he would praise their “aesthetic charm.” Still, Wilde was tempted by the Church more than either Pater or Ruskin was, and for two and a half years thought of making one among the distinguished Oxford converts, who included Manning, Newman, and more recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins. At Magdalen he met a young man who brought the issue home to him.
This was David Hunter Blair, from a titled Scottish family, later to become a Benedictine abbot. During the winter term of 1875 he obtained leave to study music in Leipzig, and from Leipzig proceeded to Rome in time to attend the ceremony at which Manning was created a cardinal, on March 15, 1875. Ten days later Hunter Blair was himself received into the Church. Pius IX treated his conversion as a notable one, and conferred on him the honorary post of paper chamberlain. No sooner was Hunter Blair back at Oxford than he began to urge Wilde and others to follow him. Several Magdalen students did. Wilde protested that his father would cut him off if he took any such step, but he acceded enough to fill his room, by June 1875, with photographs of the Pope and Cardinal Manning.
During the summer that followed Wilde made his first trip to Italy, in the company of his old professor Mahaffy. He began to write poems, and their theme was his equal temptation to pursue the spiritual and the profane. In one, “San Miniato,” he celebrates Fra Angelico, but it is Fra Angelico among the nightingales—the attraction of secularism being explicit; at the end he prays to the Virgin Mary to show him mercy before “the scorching sun / Show to the world my sin and shame.” When the poem was published his mother, as a professional poet, made the objection, “Sin is respectable and highly poetical but shame is not.” But Wilde had borrowed the phrase from an even more professional poet, Tennyson (In Memoriam, 48).
On his return to Oxford in the autumn of 1875, Wilde continued to dally with conversion. On November 23, Cardinal Manning came to dedicate the new church of St. Aloysius in St. Giles’, the first Catholic church to be built in Oxford. Wilde’s name appears among those who listened to the cardinal denounce the spiritual apathy and decay of Oxford, and he spoke of Manning as “my favorite preacher.” In December he went to see his friend Bodley in Balliol, and said that he was “swaying between Romanism…and Atheism.” Bodley acidly reminded him that one Irish papist the more would not disturb the world. Wilde continued to sway. “I think since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep,” he wrote to a friend. The summer following he carried some of Newman’s books with him to Ireland, though he imposed on Newman some of his own doubts and later described him as “that troubled soul in its progress from darkness to darkness.”
Swaying between Catholicism and atheism, Wilde adopted for a time another creed or near creed—Freemasonry. In his first year at Oxford Bodley had persuaded Wilde to join the Apollo Lodge of the Freemasons. It was a fashionable thing to do, because Queen Victoria’s son Leopold, a commoner of Christ Church, was head of the order. At first Wilde took the craft lightly as a social club, but he gradually became more involved. When he had finished the preliminary degrees he had to decide whether to proceed, like his friend Bodley, into the Apollo Royal Arch chapter, or follow a somewhat more unusual path into the Apollo Rose Croix chapter. The difference was that the Rose Croix was High Church, with a ritual that dealt explicitly with Christ’s death and resurrection and included a communion rite. Wilde chose to take this step on November 27, 1876, that is, in his third Oxford year. “I have got rather keen on Freemasonry lately,” he wrote on March 3, 1877, “and believe in it awfully—“ The adverb suggests some self-mockery. He goes on, “in fact [I] would be awfully sorry to have to give it up in case I secede from the Protestant Heresy.” With missionary zeal he sponsored four Magdalen students into the order. But the same letter indicates how ludicrously various his inclinations were:
I now breakfast with Father Parkinson, go to St Aloysius, talk sentimental religion to Dunlop [one of Hunter Blair’s converts] and altogether am caught in the fowler’s snare, in the wiles of the Scarlet Woman—I may go over in the vac. I have dreams of a visit to Newman, of the holy sacrament in a new Church, and of a quiet and peace afterwards in my soul. I need not say, though, that I shift with every breath of thought and am weaker and more self-deceiving than ever.
If I could hope that the Church would wake in me some earnestness and purity I would go over as a luxury, if for no better reasons. But I can hardly hope it would, and to go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great gods “Money and Ambition.”
Still I get so wretched and low and troubled that in some desperate mood I will seek the shelter of a Church which simply enthrals me by its fascination.
It was just after writing this letter that he was prevailed upon by Hunter Blair to visit Rome. Wilde had no money, but Hunter Blair—a wealthy man—promised to stop at Monte Carlo and put two pounds on a number in Wilde’s name. Soon sixty pounds arrived, ostensibly Hunter Blair’s winnings. It seemed that Wilde had no choice but to go. “This is an era in my life, a crisis,” he wrote to a friend. He qualified his acceptance, however, by arranging with Professor Mahaffy, who was taking two young men to Greece with him, to accompany him as far as Genoa. On the way there, Mahaffy as an arch-Protestant attempted to alter Wilde’s resolution to visit Rome by inviting him to Greece. Wilde was firm. Then Mahaffy said sternly, “I won’t take you. I wouldn’t have such a fellow with me.” Proof against argument, Wilde was not proof against disdain. He agreed to go to Greece, but with the proviso that he would leave the Mahaffy party in Athens and return by way of Rome. It was a characteristic decision: between alternatives he chose both.
Pagan Greece had something of the subversive effect upon papal Rome that Mahaffy desired. Wilde, by the time he finally joined Hunter Blair in Rome, was veering away from Catholicism. But Hunter Blair arranged for him a momentous meeting with Pope Pius IX. The pope urged him to follow his condiscipulus (so popes talk) into the city of God. Wilde found the meeting awesome; he said not a word, closeted himself in his hotel room, and emerged with a sonnet which gave Hunter Blair heart. But poems are not so good as prayers. That same afternoon, as they were driving by the Protestant cemetery, Wilde insisted upon stopping their carriage and then, to Hunter Blair’s dismay, prostrated himself before the grave of Keats. It was a humbler obeisance than he had given to the pope. After this Hunter Blair refused to read any more sonnets.
There was another force in Wilde’s mind which was working against Catholicism as effectively as paganism or aestheticism. This was the profane life of the senses in a much less generalized mode. Wilde’s sexuality teetered between love of women and love of men. During his second year at Oxford he became engaged to a young woman living in Dublin named Florence Balcombe, but after two years she broke off their understanding and was married to Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Various other young women fell in and out of Wilde’s life during this time—he was obviously flirtatious, and with women. Still, his male friendships included some that were equivocal. On December 4, 1875, Wilde’s second year at Oxford, his friend Bodley noted in a diary, “Called on Wilde, who leaves foolish letters from people who are ‘Hungry’ for him and call him ‘Fosco’ for his friends to read.” Evidently Wilde saw no reason to be secretive, so he must have regarded these letters as innocent.
Not long afterward, however, there occurred an incident that had many repercussions. An undergraduate at Balliol named William Money Hardinge, whom Wilde knew as one of Ruskin’s road-builders, was disclosed to have received letters from Walter Pater signed, “Yours lovingly.” Hardinge had also written and circulated some homosexual poems. The affair was brought to the attention of the authorities by Balliol students who feared that the “Balliol Bugger,” as Hardinge was called, was giving the college a bad name. Early in 1876 the master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, was apprised of the Pater letters and the sonnets. He now broke with Pater—a famous rupture—and summoned Hardinge on the official charge of “keeping and reciting immoral poetry.” Hardinge denied it at first, but when threatened with a proctorial inquiry agreed to resign. Eleven years later Wilde would review one of Hardinge’s novels and comment good-humoredly that its hero was “an Arcadian Antinous and a very Ganymede in gaiters.”
Though Wilde was not himself implicated with Hardinge, he had begun to evince the same interest in inversion that he was showing in conversion. André Raffalovich, an unfriendly witness, says that Wilde boasted of taking as much pleasure in talking about the subject of homosexuality as others had in practicing it. The summer after Hardinge left, in 1876, Wilde noticed another Oxford student named Todd sitting with a choir boy in a private box in a Dublin theater. He confided the matter to a friend in Magdalen, but added, “Don’t tell anyone about it like a good boy—it would do neither us nor Todd any good.” In this case he showed caution, but he was incautious in forming a friendship with Lord Ronald Gower, a sculptor who was patently homosexual but so well connected that nobody noticed. And this same year, he wrote a letter to Oscar Browning, who had lost his mastership at Eton because of alleged over-intimacy with a prize pupil, and asked to meet him because, he said, “I have heard you so much abused that I am sure you must be a most excellent person.”
Wilde was putting his hands ever nearer to the fire. The following year, 1877, he wrote his first published prose, a review of the opening of the new Grosvenor Gallery in London. The review put great emphasis upon paintings of boys, and included a telltale sentence:
In the Greek islands boys can be found as beautiful as the Charmides of Plato. Guido’s “St Sebastien” in the Palazzo Rossi at Genoa is one of these boys, and Perugino once drew a Greek Ganymede for his native town, but the painter who most shows the influence of this type is Correggio, whose lily-bearer in the cathedral at Parma, and whose wild-eyed, open-mouthed St John in the “incoronata Madonna” of St Giovanni Evangelista, are the best examples in art of the bloom and vitality and radiance of this adolescent beauty.
Sure that Pater would like this article, he sent it to him, and was at once invited to their first meeting. The same year there appeared an anonymous pamphlet entitled Boy Worship at Oxford, reflecting the propensity that Wilde and Pater shared.
Yet just as he was dallying with Freemasonry at the same time as with Catholicism which was opposed to it, so Wilde appears to have kept to hetero-sexual practices while clearly tending in another direction. It was at Oxford, probably, that an event took place which was to alter his life. Arthur Ransome wrote in his life of Wilde in 1911, on the basis of information from Robert Ross, that Wilde had syphilis, and that the ear infection from which he died in 1900 was related to an attack of paresis. It was said in the Wilde circle that he had contracted the disease while at Oxford from a woman prostitute. There was a mysterious illness in March of his fourth year that may have been the onset of the disease, which on medical advice is said to have been treated—as was then customary—with mercury. In “The Sphinx,” a poem that Ross said Wilde had begun at Oxford, there occur the lines: “Are there not others more accursed, whiter with leprosies than I?” The allusion is to the leprosy about which in the Old Testament Naaman, the Syrian captain, consults the prophet Elisha. (Wilde’s interest in this figure continued: he gave his name to the executioner in Salome.)
Apparently it was the onset of syphilis that led him the next month, that is, in April 1878, to consult the society priest of the day, Rev. Sebastien Bowden, at the Brompton Oratory in London. The possibility of being purged of his sin seems to have emerged at the interview, because in Bowden’s letter, which has survived, the priest says, “Let me repeat to you as solemnly as I can what I said yesterday, you have like everyone else an evil nature and this in your case has become more corrupt by bad influences mental and moral, and by positive sin; hence you speak as a dreamer and sceptic with no faith in anything and no purpose in life.” Positive sin sounds like a heterosexual offense rather than something perverse. Father Bowden ended his letter by inviting Wilde to return to the Brompton Oratory to be received into the Church: “I trust that you will come on Thursday and have another talk; you may be quite sure I shall urge you to do nothing but what your conscience dictates. In the meantime pray hard and talk little.” He knew his man.
At last Wilde had been brought to the point of decision. Although Bowden’s letter has been available for some time, what Wilde did in response to it has not been known. But André Raffolovich, himself a convert, mentioned casually in an obscure article what Father Bowden told him happened next. On the Thursday when Wilde was to be received into the Church, there arrived at the Brompton Oratory, instead of Wilde, a large package. On being opened this proved to contain a bunch of lilies. It was Wilde’s polite way of flowering over his renunciation. What he would say of Dorian Gray was true of himself:
It was rumoured of him [Dorian] that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had a great attraction for him…. But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail [in other words, during a momentary depression]…no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself.
He evidently decided that he must accept mercury rather than religion as the anodyne for his dreadful disease.
And now I think we begin to recognize how Wilde brought himself to full consciousness at Oxford. He had begun by stirring his conscience with Ruskin and his senses with Pater; these worthies had gradually passed into more complicated blends of Catholicism, Freemasonry, aestheticism, and various kinds of behavior, all embraced fervently but impermanently. Initially, his letters reveal, he tried to resolve his own contradictions and berated himself for being weak and self-deceiving. But gradually while at Oxford he came to see his contradictions as sources of strength rather than of volatility. In a world where “the dullard and the doctrinaire” limited themselves as he said by grand decisions about their beliefs, he declined to do so. “A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true,” he would declare in “The Truth of Masks.” This was the great lesson which his immersion in various movements had taught him, first about art, then about life. He would be neither a Catholic nor a Freemason; aesthetic one moment, he would be anaesthetic the next. This conclusion jibed with what was perhaps involuntary, his oscillation between the love of women and the love of men.
As a result, Wilde writes his works out of a debate between doctrines rather than out of doctrine. In “Hélas!,” the poem which he prefaced to his first book of verse, he indicates that in yielding to pleasure he has not given up his austerity, that the heights as well as the depths still attract him. In his first play, Vera, the heroine plans to kill the czar, but instead saves his life, as if she had suddenly been made aware of her own contradictory impulse and decided not to resist it. When Wilde writes a sonnet about political revolutionaries, he disparages them in the octave but at the end of the sestet is suddenly minded to say, “God knows it I am with them, in some things.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a critique of aestheticism, which is shown to bring Dorian to ruin; yet readers have been won by Dorian’s beauty and are regretful, rather than horrified, at his waste of it, so that he has something of the glamour of a Faust rather than the foulness of a murderer and drug addict. And Wilde, feeling that the book had too much moral, added to it a preface which expounds sympathetically some of that aesthetic creed by which the book shows Dorian to be corrupted. In Salome Wilde allows King Herod to yield to sensual delectation as he watches Salome dance the dance of the seven veils, then yield to horrified jealousy as he watches her kiss the dead lips of Iokanaan, and finally to outraged conscience as he orders the guards to kill her. Lady Windermere has to discover that in all her puritanism she is capable like other people of doing something utterly adverse to her principles.
In An Ideal Husband Lady Chiltern has to reconcile herself to the fact that ideal husbands may have concealed real secrets. In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde might be said to parody his own tendency to look for contradictions by having serious Jack turn out to be frivolous Ernest. “The wise contradict themselves,” Wilde declares in his “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” and in De Profundis, which he wrote in prison, Wilde offers himself as a penitent but in this guise begins to turn into a martyr, to be released and reborn and justified. In Wilde’s last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the hero of which has slit his wife’s throat with a razor, Wilde suddenly turns upon his hypocrite readers to say that we are all murderers of the thing we love.
This sudden perception of a truth opposed to the home truth we are all prepared to acknowledge, and just as plausible, was Wilde’s answer to what he called the “violence of opinion” exhibited as he saw by most of his contemporaries. He traced his own detachment from that violence to Oxford, where he said he had learned “the Oxford temper,” though it was really his own temper. By the time he left the university he could see that life’s complexity could not easily be codified into thirty-nine or forty-nine articles, into ten or twenty commandments, into pluses and minuses awarded to this person or that creed. Wilde was a moralist, in a school where Blake, Nietzsche, and even Freud were his fellows. The object of life is not to simplify it. As our conflicting impulses coincide, as our repressed feelings vie with our expressed ones, as our solid views disclose unexpected striations, we are all secret dramatists, whether or not we bring our complexities on the stage. In this light Wilde’s works become exercises in self-criticism as well as pleas for tolerance.
March 29, 1984