Tag Archives: Fin de Siecle

Some Thoughts on Oscar Wilde, in response to Peter Hitchens

Oscar Wilde is one of the greatest writers who ever lived. It is a shame that Peter Hitchens appears to be conflating the genius that Oscar Wilde put into his life with only the talent that he put into his work (to paraphrase the great man himself). As others have hinted, part of the problem is because of the incredible drama of Wilde’s life. It is no surprise that people are fascinated by the story, which would explain, perhaps, why a new biography on Wilde comes out every few years. As Wilde prophetically  said, “to be great is to be misunderstood. Remain, as I do, incomprehensible.”

What is slightly baffling is how Hitchens seemingly belittles Wilde as a writer. The genius that Wilde disavowed is manifest in the writing. Wilde continues to appeal because his words are so fresh. The children’s stories, plays, essays (in particular, The Soul of Man Under Socialism and The Truth Of Masks),  critical dialogues (The Decay of Lying and The Critic as Artist), poems, letters, epigrams etc. fizz with myriad ideas that many writers would envy. Ironically, it was the words of his fellow countryman, George Bernard Shaw who summed up Wilde’s brilliance with great sagacity when he wrote after the success of one of Wilde’s plays: “It seems that I am the only person in London who is unable to write a Wilde play at the moment.”

Shaw’s point is that Wilde makes the “drawing-room” drama a seemingly effortless creation. Of course, it isn’t. Wilde’s gift for wordplay is unmatched. His genius for inveigling himself with the chattering classes whilst simultaneously mocking their pretensions is unparalleled. It is perhaps no wonder that Wilde remains one of the most popular writers amongst the young (“The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything but the young know everything”) and not just those who loathe illiberalism and cant. Beneath the veneer of glittering wit, Wilde was a radical: interrogating and probing, without being preachy. Constant themes that spring up are: the quest for personal emancipation; social justice; questioning of gender stereotypes; the mutable nature of self; humanism/religious belief and the need for tolerance and kindness in a world that can be so inhospitable and festering with dissimulation.  He wrote passionately about the need for prison reform after his spell of incarceration, highlighting the vicious punitiveness of a system that could imprison a child and the terrible degradations inflicted on the human spirit. His last poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, with its sorrowful theme exquisitely sublimated, is surely one of the greatest poems in the English language:

                                                 We were as men who through a fen

                                                  Of Filthy darkness grope:

                                                  We didn’t dare to breathe a prayer,

                                                  Or to give our anguish scope:

                                                   Something was dead in each of us,

                                                   And what was dead was hope


I get the impression that Hitchens, despite his deliberately provocative assertions has a sneaking admiration for Wilde. There’s a lot more I could say to attest to this towering giant of man’s genius. Suffice to say, if anyone hasn’t, please get a hold of the Collins Complete Works of Wilde: it is full of marvels (his output is much more comprehensive and varied than people give him credit for).Richard Ellman‘s biography of Wilde is one of the greatest literary biographies, if not the greatest. How can one not admire an author who not only wrote some of the greatest lines in English literature (memories of seeing Patricia Routledge play Lady Bracknell at the Royal Theatre in Bath some eleven years ago still brings tears to my eyes), had the ability to appeal (and still does) to people of all ages and inspired one of the greatest actors of modern times, Al Pacino, to make a fascinating programme about the deliciously decadent, Salome.  And just to throw in a final nugget of praise, Wilde’s essay, “The Portrait of Mr W.H” – investigating the identity of the inscrutable dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is blessed with those qualities that make Wilde so appealing: a flair for provocation; playful with paradox; steeped in erudition and an insatiable command and love of the English language.


1 Comment

Filed under Authors, Books, Culture