Images de page
PDF
ePub

XVII.-OSCAR WILDE

OSCAR WILDE is a writer whom one must see through in order to appreciate. One must smash the idol in order to preserve the god. If Mr. Ransome's estimate of Wilde in his clever and interesting and seriously-written book is a little unsatisfactory, it is partly because he is not enough of an iconoclast. He has not realized with sufficient clearness that, while Wilde belonged to the first rank as a wit, he was scarcely better than second-rate as anything else. Consequently, it is not Wilde the beau of literature who dominates his book. Rather, it is Wilde the egoistic, æsthetic philosopher, and Wilde the imaginative artist.

This is, of course, as Wilde would have liked it to be. For, as Mr. Ransome says, “though Wilde had the secret of a wonderful laughter, he preferred to think of himself as a person with magnificent dreams." Indeed, so much was this so, that it is even suggested that, if Salomé had not been censored, the social comedies might never have been written. "It is possible," observes Mr. Ransome, "that we owe The Importance of Being Earnest to the fact that the Censor prevented Sarah Bernhardt from playing Salomé at the Palace Theatre." If this conjecture is right, one can never think quite so unkindly of the Censor again, for in The Importance of Being Earnest, and in it alone, Wilde achieved a work of supreme genius in its kind.

It is as lightly-built as a house of cards, a frail edifice of laughter for laughter's sake. Or you might say that, in the literature of farce, it has a place as a "dainty rogue in porcelain." It is even lighter and more fragile than that. It is a bubble, or a flight of bubbles. It is the very ecstasy of levity. As we listen to Lady Bracknell discussing the possibility of parting with her daughter to a man who had been "born, or at least bred, in a handbag," or as we watch Jack and Algernon wrangling over the propriety of eating

muffins in an hour of gloom, we seem somehow to be caught up and to sail through an exhilarating mid-air of nonsense. Some people will contend that Wilde's laughter is always the laughter not of the open air but of the salon. But there is a spontaneity in the laughter of The Importance of Being Earnest that seems to me to associate it with running water and the sap rising in the green field.

It is when he begins to take Wilde seriously as a serious writer that one quarrels with Mr. Ransome. Wilde was much better at showing off than at revealing himself, and, as the comedy of showing off is much more delightful than the solemn vanity of it, he was naturally happiest as a wit and persifleur. On his serious side he counts, not as an original artist, but as a popularizer-the most accomplished popularizer, perhaps, in English literature. He popularized William Morris, both his domestic interiors and his Utopias, in the æsthetic lectures and in The Soul of Man under Socialism-a wonderful pamphlet, the secret of the world-wide fame of which Mr. Ransome curiously misses. He popularized the cloistral æstheticism of Pater and the cultural egoism of Goethe in Intentions and elsewhere. In Salomé he popularized the gorgeous processionals of ornamental sentences upon which Flaubert had expended not the least marvellous part of his genius.

Into an age that guarded respectability more closely than virtue and ridiculed beauty because it paid no dividend came Wilde, the assailant of even the most respectable ugliness, parrying the mockery of the meat tea with a mockery that sparkled like wine. Lighting upon a world that advertised commercial wares, he set himself to advertise art with as heroic an extravagance, and who knows how much his puce velvet knee-breeches may have done to make the British public aware of the genius, say, of Walter Pater? Not that Wilde was not a finished egoist, using the arts and the authors to advertise himself rather than himself to advertise them. But the time-spirit contrived that the arts and the authors should benefit by his outrageous breeches.

It is in the relation of a great popularizer, then-a popularizer who, for a new thing, was not also a vulgarizerthat Wilde seems to me to stand to his age. What, then, of Mr. Ransome's estimate of Salomé? That it is a fascinating play no lover of the pageantry of words can deny. But of what quality is this fascination? It is, when all is said, the fascination of the lust of painted faces.

Here we have no tragedy, but a mixing of degenerate philtres. Mr. Ransome hears "the beating of the wings of the angel of death" in the play; but that seems to me to be exactly the atmosphere that Wilde fails to create. As the curtain falls on the broken body of Salomé one has a sick feeling, as though one had been present where vermin were being crushed. There is not a hint of the elation, the liberation, of real tragedy. The whole thing is simply a wonderful piece of coloured sensationalism. And even if we turn to the costly sentences of the play, do we not find that, while in his choice of colour and jewel and design Flaubert wrought in language like a skilled artificer, Wilde, in his treatment of words, was more like a lavish amateur about town displaying his collection of splendid gems?

Wilde speaks of himself in De Profundis as a lord of language. Unhappily, he was just the opposite. Language was a vice with him. He took to it as a man might take to drink. He was addicted rather than devoted to language. He had a passion for it, but too little sense of responsibility towards it, and, in his choice of beautiful words, we are always conscious of the indolence as well as the extravagance of the man of pleasure. How beautifully, with what facility of beauty, he could use words, everyone knows who has read his brief Endymion (to name one of the poems), and the many hyacinthine passages in Intentions. But when one is anxious to see the man himself as in De Profundis-that book of a soul imprisoned in embroidered sophistries-one feels that this cloak of strange words is no better than a curse.

If Wilde was not a lord of language, however, but only its bejewelled slave, he was a lord of laughter, and it is

because there is so much laughter as well as language in Intentions that I am inclined to agree with Mr. Ransome that Intentions is "that one of Wilde's books that most nearly represents him." Even here, however, Mr. Ransome will insist on taking Wilde far too seriously. For instance, he tells us that "his paradoxes are only unfamiliar truths." How horrified Wilde would have been to hear him say so! His paradoxes are a good deal more than truths or a good deal less. They helped, no doubt, to redress a balance, but many of them were the merest exercises in intellectual rebellion. Mr. Ransome's attitude on the question of Wilde's sincerity seems to me as impossible as his attitude in regard to the paradoxes. He draws up a code of artistic sincerity which might serve as a gospel for minor artists, but of which every great artist is a living denial. Disagree as we may with many of Mr. Ransome's conclusions, however, we must be grateful to him for a thoughtful, provocative, and ambitious study of one of the most brilliant personalities and wits, though by no means one of the brilliant imaginative artists, of the nineteenth century.

XVIII.-TWO ENGLISH CRITICS

(1) Mr. Saintsbury.

MR. SAINTSBURY as a critic possesses in a high degree the gift of sending the reader post-haste to the works he criticizes. His Peace of the Augustans is an almost irresistible incitement to go and forget the present world among the poets and novelists and biographers and letter-writers of the eighteenth century. His enthusiasm weaves spells about even the least of them. He does not merely remind us of the genius of Pope and Swift, of Fielding and Johnson and Walpole. He also summons us to Amory's John Buncle and to the Reverend Richard Graves's Spiritual Quixote as to a feast. Of the latter novel he declares that ' for a book that is to be amusing without being flimsy, and substantial without being ponderous, The Spiritual Quixote may, perhaps, be commended above all its predecessors and contemporaries outside the work of the great Four themselves." That is characteristic of the wealth of invitations scattered through The Peace of the Augustans. After reading the book, one can scarcely resist the temptation to spend an evening over Young's Night Thoughts, and one will be almost more likely to turn to Prior than to Shakespeare himself-Prior who, "with the eternal and almost unnecessary exception of Shakespeare . . . is about the first to bring out the true English humour which involves sentiment and romance, which laughs gently at its own tears, and has more than half a tear for its own laughter "-Prior, of whom it is further written that "no one, except Thackeray, has ever entered more thoroughly into the spirit of Ecclesiastes." It does not matter that in a later chapter of the book it is Rasselas which is put with Ecclesiastes, and, after Rasselas, The Vanity of Human Wishes.

« PrécédentContinuer »