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How to Read and Understand Poetry
ClassicNote on The Scarlet Letter


One of the most remarkable and controversial figures in the history of English Literature or indeed, of the literature of the world, is undoubtedly Oscar Wilde. He gained his reputation as a man endowed with a complex character, a strong personality, alternating between leading a moral life from the religious and social point of view or having an accomplished existence as a different human being, feeling that he was caught between social request and individual, inner needs and desires.

His career may be described, without exaggeration, as kaleidoscopic and at the same time catastrophic, for never has any author's reputation passed through so many different phases - from ridicule to adulation, from adulation to fame, from triumphant fame to contempt, disgrace and disdain, eventually to return, posthumously, to honour and triumph.

Oscar Wilde was not a conventional man of letters whose work can be assessed in an ordinary way. He cultivated an extravagant manner of living, he became a charismatic figure determining extreme attitudes of execration and adulation, inclined to extremes of aestheticism. He is indeed the most important exponent of the English Aesthetic Movement, he wrote in all main literary forms, using brilliant exposure, witty conversation and paradox as main characteristics of his style, thus achieving a universally praised work. Nevertheless, he declared in a letter to André Gide: 'I have put all my genius into my life; I have put only my talent into my works'.

A brilliant and cultured man, with a keen sense of beauty and high intellectual interests, he was in permanent revolt against the mercenary and philistine standards of the contemporary society. He was further endowed with a keen sense of humour and a remarkable gift of verbal felicity, witty paradox and satirical sting.

His literary activity, just as his life, is indeed complex, both diverse and important for his aesthetic development: poems, short stories, critical essays, a novel, and dramatic works. His evolution as a writer was complete.

“Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in a congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful”[2]. And, indeed, this was the case of Oscar Wilde.

1.1. A concise presentation of Oscar Wilde’s life

Oscar Wilde’s family is Dutch in origin. The first Wilde to settle in Ireland was a certain Colonel de Wilde, the son of an artist, examples of whose work hang in the Art Gallery at The Hague; he was a soldier of fortune who was granted lands in Connaught at the end of the seventeenth century for his services to King William III of England. He is said to have repented his adherence to the English king and to have become “more Irish than the Irish”. From that time the family were land agents and doctors.

Sir William Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s parents were both distinguished in their own way. Sir William Wilde, his father, was the foremost eye and ear specialist of his time, and a physician of international repute. He invented the operation for cataract and performed it on King Oscar of Sweden, for which he received the Order of the Polar Star. Before he married, William fathered three children, Henry, Emily and Mary. To William’s credit, he provided financial support for all of them. He paid for Henry’s education and medical studies, eventually hiring him into ST. Mark’s Hospital as an assistant. Sadly, Mary and Emily, who were raised by William’s brother, both died in a fire at the ages of 22 and 24. Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Wilde, born Jane Francesca Elgee, was a staunch Irish Nationalist, who wrote fierce poems and articles in the Irish Nationalist newspaper “The Nation”, under the name of “Speranza”, a name that she had adopted from her motto “Fidanza, Constanza, Speranza”- Faith, Constancy, Hope. Jane, who was also a gifted linguist with working knowledge of the major European languages went on to translate Wilhelm Meinhold’s gothic horror novel, “Sidonia the Sorceress”. Oscar would later read the translation with relish, and draw on it for the darker elements of his own work. Lady Wilde had three children, William, Oscar and Isola, who died when she was ten, to Oscar’s lasting grief. Oscar was profoundly affected by the loss of his sister, and for his lifetime he carried a lock of her hair sealed in a decorated envelope.

Oscar Wilde was born on October 10th, 1854, and was given the names Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde.

His education began at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, from which he obtained a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, where he won the Berkeley Medal for Greek. From there he received a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford.

Oscar Wilde, as a child

Oscar’s father died on April 19th, 1876, leaving the family financially strapped. Henry, William’s eldest son, paid the mortgage on the family’s house and supported them until his sudden death in 1877.

While at Oxford Oscar Wilde came under the influence of John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Pater preached the love of Art for Art’s Sake, and Oscar Wilde, going one step further, set out to idolise beauty for beauty’s sake and filled his rooms looking over the Cherwell with blue china and reproductions of paintings by Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Aestheticism was the keynote of his creed and he declared that beauty was the ideal after which everyone should strive.

Oscar Wilde’s life at Oxford, as one can gather from his letters, was a joyous one. He entered whole-heartedly into the undergraduate life of the University and distinguished himself by winning the Newdigate Prize for English verse, for his poem Ravenna”, and getting a double First in Classics. Upon this note he came to London in 1879 with the remains of a small patrimony and started to make his living by his pen. There, he lived with his friend Frank Miles, a popular high society portrait painter. True to his doctrine of beauty he established himself as the “Apostle of Aestheticism” and drew attention to himself by the eccentricity of his dress. It must be remembered that at this period the clothing of the British upper middle classes was rigidly conventional, and the sight of him in the evening in a velvet coat edged with braid, knee-breeches, black silk stockings, a soft loose shirt with a wide turn-down collar and a large flowing tie, was bound to arouse indignant curiosity.

In 1881, he published his first collection of poetry. “Poems” received mixed reviews by critics, but helped to move Oscar’s writing career along.

Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour

In December 1881, Oscar sailed for New York to travel across the United States and deliver a series of lectures on aesthetics. The 50-lecture tour was originally scheduled to last four months, but stretched to nearly a year, with over 140 lectures given in 260 days. In between lectures he made time to meet with Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. He also arranged for his play, “Vera”, to be staged in New York the following year. When he returned from America, Oscar spent three months in Paris writing a blank-verse tragedy that had been commissioned by the actress Mary Anderson. When he sent it to her, however, she turned it down. He then set off on a lecture tour of Britain and Ireland.

Constance Lloyd

On May 29th, 1884, Oscar married Constance Lloyd. Constance was four years younger than Oscar and the daughter of a prominent Barrister, who died when she was sixteen. She was well read, spoke several European languages and had an outspoken, independent mind. Oscar and Constance had two sons in quick succession, Cyrill in 1885, and Vyvyan in 1886.

Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, and their son, Cyrill

With a family to support, Oscar accepted a job revitalising “The Woman's World” magazine, where he worked from 1887 to 1889. The next six years were to become the most creative period of his life. He published two collections of children stories, “The Happy Prince And Other Tales” (1888), and “The House Of Pomegranates” (1892). His first and only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, was published in an American magazine in 1890 to a storm of critical protest. He expanded the story and had it published in book form the following year. Its implied homoerotic theme was considered very immoral by the Victorians and played a considerable part in his later legal trials. Oscar’s first play, “Lady Windermere's Fan”, opened in February 1892. Its financial and critical success prompted him to continue to write for the theatre. His subsequent plays included “A Woman Of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), and “The Importance Of Being Earnest” (1895) were all highly acclaimed and firmly established Oscar as a playwright.

Lord Alfred Douglas

In the summer of 1891, Oscar met Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry. Bosie was well acquainted with Oscar's novel “Dorian Gray” and was an undergraduate at Oxford. They soon became lovers and were inseparable until Wilde’s arrest four years later. In April 1895 Douglas’ irate father, the Marquees of Queensbury, left a card at Wilde’s club addressed: “To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite (sic)”. Getting the point, Wilde sued for libel but dropped the charges when the sensational trial turned in his disfavour. He was then arrested and convicted of gross indecency, homosexual practices and sentenced to two years hard labour. Constance took the children to Switzerland and reverted to an old family name, “Holland”.

Upon his release, Oscar wrote “The Ballad of the Reading Gaol”, a response to the agony he experienced in prison. It was published shortly before Constance’s death in 1898. He and Bosie reunited briefly, but Oscar mostly spent the last three years of his life wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. Sadly, he was unable to rekindle his creative fires. When a recurrent ear infection became serious several years later, meningitis set in, and Oscar Wilde died on November 30th, 1900.

Three days before he died in the Hôtel d’Alsace, Oscar Wilde was asked by the hotel-owner about his life in London. Wilde replied: “Some said my life was a lie but I always knew it to be the truth; for, like the truth, it was rarely pure and never simple.”

1.2. Main characteristics of Oscar Wilde’s literary works

Oscar Wilde tried his hand at several kinds of writing, his works including poems, short stories, a novel, plays and critical essays. His career as a writer develops from one genre to another, according to the changes he suffered in his spiritual life and in his physical life as well.

At first he wrote tales in which the good and the pure always triumph, then he reached the conclusion that the “evil” in himself could not be controlled and so explored the theme not within the safe confines of a fairytale, but in a dark, sinister novel, with a tragic ending “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”. The title hero becomes increasingly evil as the novel progresses, finding beauty in evil, though he sometimes yearns for his lost innocence. Next, Wilde set forward what was essentially the same message in a social comedy, the play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, which highlighted the ambiguity of class, nature and evil. Late in 1891, Wilde wrote his chilling one-act symbolist play “Salomé” in which human nature is presented as entirely black. However, Wilde felt that he had gone too far, and so “The Importance of Being Earnest” can be seen as the product of a reaction against lost innocence. The tone perfectly recaptures this, and the characters who inhabit the play are really babies who are playing at life. Thus, he closes the circle of his literary progress, without actually returning to the fairy-tale genre, recapturing in this last play the safe, closeted world of childlike innocence. Wilde reduces the message of his earlier works to farce, thus unmasking their nonsense.

Then he wrote predominantly poems, influenced by the Elizabethan Romantic poets and by the Nineteenth Century French poets. Although well received at the time, they are mostly lyrical, rather imitative and artificial. Boris Brasol, one of the literary critics who wrote a carefully considered life of Oscar Wilde, sums up his poetic period as follows: “He began his literary career as a composer of sonorous and pleasing verses in which, however, as he himself admitted, ‘there was more rhyme than reason’; yet, as he grew older, he seemed to have lost all taste for poetry, and though there was nothing that would justify the contention that he ever regarded his early poems as callow productions, the fact remains that upon reaching maturity he took no further interest in that delightful occupation which Browning aptly called ‘the unlocking of hearts with sonnet keys’.”

During the same period he also wrote “Vera”(1880), a rather immature play, which ran for one week in New York and never reached the boards in London. It suggests a pretty minimal mastery of theatre technique and an ever thinner grasp of the Russian political realities which it attempts to dramatise. His next play was “The Duchess of Padua, which he had written for the American actress Mary Anderson; but when he received the play, she turned it down flatly; thus the play never even reached the stage.

Literary fame came later during this period, when he published his first memorable work, “The Happy Prince”, which appeared in 1888. The stories included in “The Happy Prince” are really poems in prose more than fairy tales for children; and yet the remarkable thing is that they appeal equally to children and adults. They combine satire and irony and express his humanitarian concerns for social injustices. In these stories he combines dazzling wit with heart-wrenching sadness. There is the story of the Nightingale, who gives up her life to make a rose grow, so that a young student might bring it to his lover. There is the Selfish Giant, who mends his ways, and dies happily as children play in his garden. There is the Happy Prince and the Swallow who give up everything to help the city’s poor. These are stories of suffering and salvation; and there are Christian undertones to everyone, but they are too beautifully written to ever come across as corny or clichéd.

In 1891 he produced a small volume of four stories which he had written some time previously. The book was called “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and other Stories”, the other three tales being “The Canterville Ghost”, “The Sphinx without a Secret”, and “The Model Millionaire”. The first two of these stories have been dramatised and their substance has been copied on several occasions; they possess the light-hearted gaiety and insouciance that find their fullest expression in “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and show the buoyancy of Oscar Wilde’s spirit at that time. “ A House of Pomegranates”, completely puzzled the critics, who thought that the stories were meant for children and protested, quite rightly, that no child could understand them. This was followed by “The Sphinx”, which really dated from his Oxford days, and upon which he had worked at intervals ever since. The critics were again confused by the poem, which was really nothing more than an experiment with words. He revelled in finding rhymes for words such as hieroglyph and catafalque, which he rhymed with hippogriff and Amenalk.

These stories are moral allegories verging on the fantastic and dealing with such ethical issues as the meaning of good and evil, the sufferings of the underprivileged or the doctrines of right and wrong. The tales can be seen as a contradiction to his aesthetic ideas. For him art was above society and ethical codes, yet many of the stories deal with social and moral topics. Here Wilde couldn’t distinguish between what was beautiful and what was ethically good. In order to achieve beauty, the characters strive for goodness, understanding and social equality. They stress the moral worth of human existence and they express his humanitarian concern in an allegorical way. Wilde’s sympathy for the poor found a direct expression in his essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism”, influenced by the ideas of W. Morris and G. B. Shaw. His ideas on social improvement are fairly naïve; the solution he suggests for social evils is a kind of practical Christianity that based on self-sacrifice and philanthropy. The essay contradicts again Wilde’s theoretical assumptions by showing that ultimately no writer can live isolated from reality in the Ivory Tower of Art.

It has been rightly considered that the work, which best represents Wilde as an adept of the Aesthetic Movement, is his only novel, “The Portrait of Dorian Gray”. It appeared in 1891 in book form, enlarged from the original, which had been already published in 1890 in “Lippincott’s Magazine” as a serial. The critics greeted the publication of this work with a storm of protest. The English Press was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the book. The idea of the book had first come to Wilde some years before. Hesketh Pearson tells the story of it in his “Life of Oscar Wilde”; “In the year 1884 Wilde used to drop in at the studio of a painter, Basil Ward, one of whose sitters was a young man of exceptional beauty…When the portrait was done and the youth had gone, Wilde happened to say, ‘What a pity that such a glorious creature should ever grow old!’ The artist agreed, adding, ‘How delightful it would be if he could remain exactly as he is, while the portrait aged and withered in his stead!’ Wilde expressed his obligation by calling the painter in his story Basil Hallward.

The book is the most complete expression of Wilde’s creed and it was influenced by Balzac’s “La Peau de Chagrin”, and Huysmans’ “A Rebours”. Wilde’s views on art and life are symbolically expressed in this novel, whose main ideas are the search for intense and rare sensations, the base put to any belief that sets a limit to enjoyment, the superiority of art to life and the artist to his contemporaries. Wilde said in one of his essays: “We spend our days, each one of us, in looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life in Art” .

By far the most interesting and entertaining book of essays that Oscar Wilde wrote was “Intentions”, in which he really gave rein to his imagination. It is composed of four parts: “The Decay of Lying”, The Critic as Artist”, “Pen, Pencil and Poison”, “The Truth of Masks”. They express a literary doctrine that dominated English Literature’s life for more than a decade. Wilde rejects the definition of Art as a mimetic process and presents his neo-platonic doctrine, which he discusses in detail using a wide range of examples chosen from world literature and civilisation. The essays contain in a nutshell many of the ideas that have become central to modernism and even post-modernism criticism: the primacy of the text, the supremacy of the aesthetic, the autonomy of the work of art.

“The Critic as Artist”, occupies considerably more than half of the “Intentions”; its sub-title “with some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing” shows the curious charm the word “importance” had for him; it occurs in the titles of two of his plays, and is constantly cropping up in his essays. It is almost as though the ward held a strange sonorousness for him and that he liked to roll it, if not round his tongue, then his mind.

The essay that best expresses Wilde’s aesthetic conception is “The Decay of Lying”, under the form of three doctrines: Art never expresses anything but itself, all bad Art comes from returning to life and nature and life imitates Art more than art imitates life. The essay is in the form of a dialogue, the dominant theme being the vast superiority of Art over Nature, leading to the conclusion that Nature follows Art.

Oscar Wilde now entered into his final stage, the one for which he was destined, that of a dramatist. In 1891 he wrote “Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play about a Good Woman”, which he described as “one of those modern drawing-room plays with pink lampshades”. It has distinct parallels with its comic successor, “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), in that it centres on the discovery of a dire secret and is at its most animated and conspicuously Wildean in the witty speeches of a dandified male aristocrat. Both plays have a noticeable feminine bias in that they stress the innate strength of their central female, a strength which draws on, and finally masters, a certain Puritanism.

His next play, “A Florentine Tragedy”, begun in 1894 when Wilde was at the height of his powers, remained unfinished until 1897.

Quite the most powerful and influential of his tragedies, “Salom­é”, was written in French and translated into English in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas. The play, which draws on the Bible account of the death of John the Baptist and on Flaubert’s story “Herodias”, was not produced in England until 1931 (a victim both of its outrageous treatment of the Bible history and of its author’s reputation). The striking, overwrought imagery of “Salomé”, and its shocking juxtapositions of repulsion, sexual desire and death, were particularly powerfully transformed in the German version which became the libretto of Richard Strauss’s revolutionary opera of 1915.

On January 3rd, 1895, “An Ideal Husband” was produced by Lewis Waller. The Prince of Wales was present at the first night. It was almost unprecedented by Royalty to be present at a first night, and it seemed that now Wilde’s future was assured. George Bernard Shaw’s comment on the play is worth repeating: “Mr. Oscar Wilde’s new play at the Haymarket is a dangerous subject, because he has the property of making his critics dull… He plays with everything; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre”6. Though not so dramatic as the previous plays, it was better constructed and showed that Wilde was getting a firmer grasp of the technique of the theatre. There was, as usual, a great deal of paradox, epigram, and what can only be described as “serious nonsense” in the play.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” was produced in February 1895 and was originally named “Lady Lancing” but the title was tentative and eventually abandoned. Its conventionality, did not prevent it from being entertaining although the two girls in the play are original without a trace of conventionality about them. The play as a whole marked a point of definite development in his career as a dramatist. There should have been much more thereafter. But Wilde had bitter enemies of whom the worst was Oscar Wilde, and they were all assembling for his ruin.

While in prison Wilde wrote a ravaging confession-essay-letter dedicated to Lord Alfred Douglas, part of which was published in 1905 by Robert Ross, under the title of “De Profundis”. His shattering poem, “The Ballad of the Reading Gaol”, was written upon his release from prison and it came as a response to the agony he experienced there. It was published shortly before his wife’s death in 1898.

All in all, Wilde’s poetry is reminiscent of Keats, Rossetti, and Charles Algernon Swinburne. His literary views were deeply influenced by Walte Pater, John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites.

The works he produced after his release from prison evince a different approach to life, moral values, religion and literature.

If he was destroyed by Victorian prudery, he has remained undefeated through his brilliant thinking and writing.

Wilde, Oscar, “De Profundis, cu cateva amintiri despre Oscar Wilde ale lui André Gide”, Bucuresti, Alfa Paideia, 1996, p. 8

Terpening, William, “Oscar Wilde”, New York, 1998

“The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde”, Cambridge University Press, UK,1997,p.3

Oscar Wilde, “Aesthetic Views, The Science of the Beautiful”, New York,1992, p.31

“The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde”, introduced by Vyvyan Holland, Collins, London, 1990, p.12

id.ibid. p.13

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