If Oscar Wilde had written nothing but essays and dialogues, he would be well known for them now. But until recently, his plays, his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and above all the myth of his life have overshadowed his essays. His important contemporaries were more clear-sighted: Pater (“A Novel by Mr. Oscar Wilde,” 1891) described Wilde as carrying on, “more perhaps than any other writer, the brilliant critical work of Matthew Arnold.” Yeats (“Oscar Wilde’s Last Book,” 1891) drew attention to the literary aspect of Wilde’s work: “Intentions hides within its immense paradox some of the most subtle literary criticism we are likely to see for many a long day.”
Wilde by no means confined his nonfictional work to a traditional essay form: he enjoyed stretching the notional limits of genres, typically presenting his theory of Shakespeare’s sonnets as a short story in “The Picture of Mr. W.H.” (1889) or condensing a whole theory of art into a series of epigrams as “A Preface to Dorian Gray” (1891). He also harked back to older forms, and some of his most striking essays followed Plato, Sidney, or Dryden by adopting the dialogue form with a new, almost postmodern self-consciousness.
His first notable essay is “L’Envoi,” an introduction to a volume of poems by his friend Rennell Rodd, the American publication of which he orchestrated in 1882.
“L’Envoi” is effectively a manifesto for “the modern romantic school,” a clear commitment to art for art’s sake, a deliberate departure from Ruskin’s teaching, always essentially moral, in favor of a purely aesthetic ideal. This is the young Wilde’s first call for “personality and perfection,” his open commitment to “Greek things,” his first notable dismissal of the Victorian ideals of sincerity and constancy. It is full of Paterian echoes, although Pater is nowhere mentioned; arguably by this time Wilde had wholeheartedly made some of Pater’s ideas his own, and was assembling his own rich brew of the masters who were to be lasting influences, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, apostle of individualism, and Théophile Gautier, precursor of art for art’s sake.
Before the theatrical success which seemed to mark the end of his financial problems, Wilde was a hard-working literary man, writing articles and book reviews; many of these anonymous and apparently ephemeral publications deserve to be valued as literary essays. Richard Ellmann published a selection of them along with the better-known essays and dialogues in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings ofOscar Wilde (1969).
Outstanding among these is “A Chinese Sage,” in which Wilde encounters Chuang Tzu, a Chinese Taoist philosopher of the fourth century BCE, and in him recognizes a contemporary and a fellow thinker. Chuang Tzu also preached inaction, contemplation, and the uselessness of all useful things. Wilde welcomes this paradoxical and subversive critic of wealth, moralizing, and good intentions, this proponent of “the ideal of selfculture and self-development”; this master joined Wilde’s amalgam of inspirations, with a lasting influence on his thought. But when considering his major essays and dialogues, it is pointless to look for masters: Wilde is in his own literary element, inventive, creative, witty, and invariably speaking in what is now his own voice.
His two major literary-theoretical works are the poised and witty dialogues “The Decay of Lying” (1889) and “The Critic as Artist” (1890). Neither has yet received full critical treatment, though they have been annotated in detail in The Oxford Authors Oscar Wilde (1989). The protagonists of “The Decay of Lying” are two fashionable young men, the leader Vivian being exceptionally well read and happy to display esoteric learning.
The success of the dialogues is in their selfconsciousness: here, Vivian forecasts “a new Renaissance of Art,” and reads out and discusses a paper he is writing. He goes on to “prove” that Art never expresses anything but itself, that all bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” In “The Critic as Artist,” Gilbert convinces a doomed Ernest that Criticism is the superior part of creation, and that the critic must not be fair, rational, and sincere, but possessed of “a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty.” Gilbert praises the possibilities of the dialogue form, in which, as the luckless Ernest points out, a critic “can invent an imaginary antagonist, and convert him when he chooses by some absurdly sophistical argument.”
The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) is a more traditional essay on wider themes, dealing with notions of power and authority, anarchy and individualism, and “the great actual Individualism latent and potential in mankind generally.” Here Wilde takes an airily optimistic view of the road to the socialist future and, while writing fraternally of the teachings of Christ, rejects the ideal of self-sacrifice and pain in favor of joy as the door to perfection.
There is a major change of direction in Wilde’s writing in 1897, stemming from his reaction to his prison experiences and mainly involving his closer acquaintance with the realities of pain. When he was at last allowed pen and paper in H.M. Prison, Reading, after more than 19 months of deprivation, solitary confinement, and hard labor, Wilde had become inclined to take opposite views on the potential of humankind toward perfection. De Profundis (1905), written while he was in prison, is many things: it can be read as dramatic monologue, autobiography, elegy, love letter, and of course as essay. It was first published when Robert Ross extracted what seemed to him to be appropriate passages for publication, and it is clear that Wilde saw it as destined at least in parts for a wider audience than its addressee, Lord Alfred Douglas. Among other things, it enacts the essay he contemplates here, on Christ “as the precursor of the Romantic movement in life.”
Arguably his two most powerful late essays are those which share the tone and passion of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898)—the two long letters he wrote to the Daily Chronicle (1897, 1898), which were printed under the titles “The Case of Warder Martin, Some Cruelties of Prison Life” and “Don’t Read This if You Want to Be Happy Today.”
The optimum audience for these letters, as for the Ballad, was the widest possible readership, united only in the collective recognition of cruelty and of guilt.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. Born 16 October 1854 in Dublin. Studied at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, 1864–71; Trinity College, Dublin, 1871–74; Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was taught by Walter Pater and John Ruskin, 1874–78, B.A., 1878. Moved to London, 1878; art reviewer, 1881; lectured in the United States and Canada, 1882.; lived in Paris, 1883; lectured in Britain, 1883–84.
Married Constance Lloyd, 1884 (separated, 1893; died, 1898): two sons. Regular contributor, Pall Mall Gazette and the Dramatic Review, mid-1880s; editor, Woman’s World, London, 1887–89. Sued the Marquess of Queensberry for slander, 1895, but evidence at the trial revealed his relationship with Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, and he was prosecuted for offenses to minors: sentenced to two years’ hard labor in Wandsworth prison, London, then Reading Gaol, 1895–97. On release lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth in Berneval, near Dieppe, then in Paris. Allowed into the Roman Catholic Church on his deathbed. Died (of cerebral meningitis) in Paris, 30 November 1900.
Essays and Related Prose
“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” in Fortnightly Review, 1891; in book form, as The Soul of Man, 1895; as The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1912.
De Profundis, expurgated edition, edited by Robert Ross, 1905; revised edition, 1909;
suppressed portion published, 1913; published in full in The Letters, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962; edited by Peter Forster, 1991
The Portable Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Aldington, 1946; revised edition, edited by Aldington and Stanley Weintraub, 1981
Essays, edited by Hesketh Pearson, 1950
Selected Essays and Poems, 1954; as De Profundis and Other Writings, 1973
Literary Criticism, edited by Stanley Weintraub, 1968
The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings, edited by Richard Ellmann, 1969
Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making, edited by Philip E.Smith II and Michael S.Helfand, 1989
The Oxford Authors Oscar Wilde (selections), edited by Isobel Murray, 1989
The Soul of Man, and Prison Writings, edited by Isobel Murray, 1990
Aristotle at Afternoon Tea: The Uncollected Oscar Wilde, edited by John Wyse Jackson, 1991
Other writings: eight plays (including Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892; Salomé, 1893; A
Woman of No Importance, 1893; An Ideal Husband, 1895; The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895), the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), fairytales, and poetry.
Complete works editions: Works, edited by Robert Ross, 4 vols., 1908–10; Complete Works, edited by Vyvyan Holland, 1948, reprinted 1989; Works, edited by Merlin Holland, 3 vols., 1993.
Fletcher, lan, and John Stokes, “Oscar Wilde,” in Anglo-Irish Literature: A Review of Research, edited by Richard J.Finneran, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1976
Fletcher, lan, and John Stokes, “Oscar Wilde,” in Recent Research on Anglo-Irish Writers, edited by Richard J.Finneran, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1983
Mason, Stuart, A Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, London: Laurie, 1914
Mikhail, E.H., Oscar Wilde: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, London: Macmillan, and Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978
Bashford, Bruce, “Oscar Wilde as Theorist: The Case of De Profundis,” English Literature in Transition 28, no. 4 (1985): 395–406
Beckson, Karl, editor, Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970
Beckson, Karl, London in the 1890s: A Cultural History, New York: Norton, 1992
Dyson, A.E., “Oscar Wilde: Irony of a Socialist Aesthete,” in his The Crazy Fabric: Essays in Irony, London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965
Ellmann, Richard, Oscar Wilde, London: Hamilton, 1987; New York: Knopf, 1988
Kohl, Norbert, Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989
Murray, Isobel, “Oscar Wilde’s Absorption of ‘lnfluences’: The Case History of Chuang Tzu,” Durham University Journal 64, no. 1 (1971):1–13
Murray, Isobel, “Oscar Wilde and Individualism: Contexts for The Soul of man,” Durham University Journal 83, no. 2 (1991): 195–207
Sandulescu, C.George, editor, Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, Gerrards Cross,
Buckinghamshire: Smythe, 1993
Schiff, Hilda, “Nature and Art in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Decay of Lying’,” Essays and Studies (1965):83–102
Shewan, Rodney, Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism, London: Macmillan, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1977
Small, Ian, Oscar Wilde Revalued: An Essay on New Materials and Methods of Research, Greensboro, North Carolina: ELT Press, 1993
Thomas, J.D., “The Intentional Strategy in Oscar Wilde’s Dialogues,” English Literature in Transition 12, no. 1 (1969): 11–20
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