Pay no attention to my letter

Declan Kiberd

Declan Kiberd

They were called ‘the tragic generation’ – the artists of the 1890s – and various theories were advanced as to the cause of their downfall: sodomy, absinthe and falling off barstools being chief among the culprits. W.B. Yeats, who coined the phrase, saw them embarked on ‘an experiment in living’ and pointed to the inevitable casualties. He himself eventually came to the conclusion that far more of his friends were destroyed by a wife and children than by drink and harlots. Of one failed poet he observed that ‘the harlots in his case finished what the virtues began, but it was the virtues and not the harlots which killed his knack of verse’. Oscar Wilde, for his part, offered a more banal sort of explanation. He had seen, he said, some of the finest men of his generation reduced after just six months in London to nervous wrecks, simply by virtue of the fact that they answered all letters.

Wilde was a keen correspondent but, on the basis of the new definitive edition of his letters co-edited by his grandson, one more likely to initiate than to respond. He once joked that the only reason we get to know others is to find out exactly what they think of us. Many of his earlier missives, as one might expect, are written to introduce the young tyro to the great and the good – and, although there is an air of formal careerism about some, a depth of real feeling often comes through, as in his overture to Walt Whitman: ‘there is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honour so much’. At the same time he was, as we would now say, networking like mad, for he asked Whitman to sign a copy of one of his books for the poet A.C. Swinburne. Swinburne had met Wilde in a crowd at Lord Houghton’s and instantly put him down for a ‘harmless young nobody’, but after receiving the letter about Whitman he inclined to think of the emissary as a ‘mountebank’.

Wilde does emerge as rather manipulative in his correspondence, only too willing to use the long-distance aspect of letter-writing to his advantage: ‘Dear Mr Arnold, Will you accept from me my first book of poems?’ ‘Dear Mr Gladstone, will you do me the honour of accepting my first volume of poems?’ Wilde really was, to use Roy Foster’s phrase, a mick on the make. A reader would easily deduce from the letters that their author had been badly ‘burned’ by the refusal of Florence Balcombe to marry him and by her choice of a civil servant named Bram Stoker instead. The letters to her in the aftermath speak of a two-year affair of some intensity, and it may be that his careerism in England was of the ‘I’ll-show-her’ variety. In his farewell letter Wilde referred to their time together as ‘the sweetest of all the years of my youth’.

Merlin Holland calls this volume ‘the autobiography that Wilde never wrote’, and he makes eloquent claims for its wit and warmth, ‘as close as we shall ever come to the magic of hearing him in person’. He praises one of his grandfather’s most endearing characteristics, ‘the ability to smile at one’s own misfortune’, and makes a compelling case for the dignity and seriousness of the art. In my view, the social comedies really are the Wildean autobiography: not for nothing did their author claim to have made the modern drama as personal as the lyric. A whole range of references in The Importance of Being Earnest – to gluttony, second baptism, Bunburying away from home, educational theory and so on – seem to arise as surely from the pressure of felt experience as did all the references to duelling, elopements and romantic literature in Sheridan’s The Rivals. Wilde truly did put his genius into his works, despite that late disclaimer to André Gide that he had saved his genius for his life and put only his talent into his art. He needed a mask: ‘man is least himself when he talks with his own face’, he wrote, anticipating Nietzsche by a few years, ‘but if you give him a mask he will tell you the truth’. The poetry is dull and generally derivative, conveying little sense of the man speaking; but in the comedies the force of personality is so great that everyone in them seems to end up speaking and sounding like … Oscar Wilde.

‘Mask and it shall be given to you’ was the Wildean aesthetic. He rightly jeered at much nineteenth-century lyricism (‘all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling’), proposing in place of its cult of sincerity the urgencies of the fragmented, multiple self. The problem with his letters is that, by definition, they are like nineteenth-century lyric poems, written in the stable voice of the first-person singular, and as such further examples of a sincerity often insincerely performed. The adoring letters to actresses (Ada Leverson, Marie Prescott, Mary Anderson) have a formulaic quality about them, as if Wilde were impersonating the sort of gallant he felt he ought to be. On the other hand, his letters to male artists invariably strike an original as well as playful note: ‘Dear Lionel Johnson, I called to see you, as I wanted so much to know you as well as I know your poems. Are you really invisible?’

In such moments, Wilde can somehow transcend the opening formality of a situation in order to pursue some independent line of his own. For instance, a short letter to Edward Dowden is ostensibly written to seek support from the influential Trinity don for a Civil List pension for Lady Wilde – but after just three lines the dutiful son has moved on to take up Dowden’s claim, made in an article, that Alexander Pope pronounced the word ‘tea’ as ‘tay’ in his famous couplet:

Hear thou, Great Anna! whom three realms obey
Dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea.

Wilde’s own suggestion is a characteristic inversion of Dowden: he wonders whether ‘obey’ should not have been sounded as ‘obee’. ‘The point is quite a small one, but I know you like small points, and so do I.’ The wicked parting shot follows: ‘But perhaps the article was not yours? If so, pay no attention to my letter.’ (Lady Wilde got her pension – £70 a year – and the professor, who would later be accused by Yeats of having the mind of a grocer’s clerk, was generous in his support.)

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde is a triumph for its editors: the late Rupert Hart-Davis, who devoted many years to collecting and annotating the material, and Merlin Holland, whose commentaries on his grandfather have never been less than illuminating. Holland has been able to add 300 letters to the 1200 already published by Hart-Davis in earlier editions, including a fuller version of the letter quoted at Wilde’s trial. Many of the additions come from Wilde’s spell as a working journalist at The Woman’s World, and prove just what an enterprising and hard-working editor he was, fully attuned to the events and politics of his day. The footnotes tell us exactly what we need to know of the background to specific letters, and the details of dating, location and provenance are unfussily documented. The advances in recent Wilde scholarship are taken fully into account, and some seemingly ephemeral letters are reintroduced in the light of new information. The famous letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De profundis, is given in full.

If Wilde showed remarkable powers of dispatch as a magazine editor, he also – in the more trying circumstances after his imprisonment – showed a capacity to raise money which was desperately needed. (There must be more than a dozen letters concerning the proceeds of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.) But he could be ironical about his importunities: ‘Christ did not die to save people, but to teach people how to save each other. This is, I have no doubt, a grave heresy, but it is also a fact.’ It is at this stage that he really comes into his own, sending from his Parisian exile a letter to The Daily Chronicle indicting the prison regime in England. To read the letters of this period in sequence is harrowing: not long after his idealistic letter to the newspaper, as if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished for long, he is forced to write to friends informing them of the death of his wife Constance in Genoa. ‘It is really awful,’ he tells Carlos Blacker in a grief-stricken letter filled with love for his lost wife; ‘if we had only met once, and kissed each other’. Almost all the letters of this period are to men: apart from Ada Leverson, he seems to have written mainly to those on whom he now depended for support and funds. There is a plaintive epilogue to the book containing letters exchanged by those friends after Wilde’s death, as well as Fr Cuthbert Dunne’s narrative deposition.

Merlin Holland is right to stake the primary claim for Wilde’s greatness on his works rather than his personality; and this is a necessary corrective to the attempt in recent years to over-emphasize his role as a gay martyr. He went to jail, as he tells Bosie, not for homosexual activity so much as for trying to put the young man’s aristocratic father behind bars. For most of his life, however, Wilde conducted himself with a canny, even careerist reserve – which made that single gesture all the more shocking. What emerges from these letters is the surprisingly humdrum nature of most of the writer’s days: like all major artists he saved most of his intensity for his art, even if he appeared subsequently to trivialize it by claiming that it had been dashed off at speed.

We have reason to be suspicious of artists who lead too engrossing lives, and the reassuring evidence here is that for the most part Wilde didn’t. His early trip to America is well documented in the surviving letters, and it seems to have been punishing work, as such speaking tours usually are: it might well have broken his health if he had done it later in life.

Behind the dandy’s façade, Wilde was an industrious chap – and he never worked harder than in constructing that façade. This was, after all, the lesson he enjoined on the youthful Yeats: the good line must bespeak a nonchalance yet be the outcome of rigorous rehearsal. In that context, much of the thinking of the Irish revivalists may be seen to have had a surprising source in Oscar Wilde. Yeats’s desire to think like a wise man but express himself like the people amounts to a definition of the epigram; and Synge’s yearning for a language of heightened imagery and intensity is but a refinement of Wilde’s notion of an art that improves upon nature. The cult of youth and love of fairy-tale are indicative. The Yeatsian mask is unthinkable without Wilde, as is the notion of a prison writing which links back to the Jail Journal of John Mitchel, a book that he read and cited.

Wilde’s influence on Yeats was first canvassed by Richard Ellmann in Eminent Domain, a book of the 1960s – which may now be taken as the decade when the artist’s embrace by Irish Studies began. In the three decades since, he has indeed come in from the cold, to be fêted during last November’s commemorations of the centenary of his death as one of the canonical Irish writers. And fittingly. He himself saw things that way, referring to George Bernard Shaw as a fellow-member of the ‘Celtic School’. Even ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ he treated as part of Irish prison literature, urging Leonard Smithers to have Michael Davitt write a preface. Merlin Holland has never objected to Irish ‘appropriations’ of his grandfather, and for good reason: all the evidence from the man himself, even in a letter to Yeats concerning his inclusion in The Book of Irish Verse, suggests that it was within the Irish literary tradition that he felt his works most naturally fell. He cannot be limited to Ireland, however, for his reading of English literature was immense and the influences range from Shakespeare to Keats. The recent centenary celebrations seem to have involved a degree of co-ordination between London and Dublin; and in both capitals Merlin Holland played a leading part. It is thus appropriate that the commemorations should have come to a climax with this majestic edition of Wilde’s letters.

MERLIN HOLLAND AND RUPERT HART-DAVIS, eds, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Fourth Estate, £35 in UK

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 2 Spring 2001