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grew more and more Insistent. A dozen times he
waved it aside and went into debt rather than re-
strain himself. Somehow or other he would fall
on his feet, he thought. Men who console them-
selves in this way usually fall on some one else's feet,
and so did Oscar Wilde. At twenty-six years of


age, and, curiously enough, at the very moment of
his insolent-bold challenge of the world with fan-
tastic dress, he had to borrow from his mother and
a little later was fain to sell his small patrimony in
order to meet the most pressing necessities; but the
difficulty was only postponed; what was to be done?

Even as a young man Oscar had a certain under-
standing of life. He could not make his way as a
journalist, but he might as a lecturer; he knew In
his heart that he could talk, better than he could
write and there was a lot of money in a successful
lecture tour. But for the moment he put off this
new adventure, having persuaded himself that his
book of poems would make him famous and perhaps
rich. He had used all his cleverness on the book;
he had written sonnets In it to Miss Ellen Terry and
other notable persons; they would surely talk about
the book and buy copies and get their friends also
to buy. His calculation was not mistaken: the book
went into four editions in as many weeks and brought
in some two or three hundred pounds — tenfold more
than Keats's first book. There was a bitter in the
sweet, however; the critics would not have him at
any price : The Times, The Saturday Review, Punch
— the bigwigs declared unanimously that his poems
were mere echoes and furnished striking proof of
their assertions. Oscar Wilde, they all concluded,
was anything you like; but not a poet.

In face of the condemnation of the critics Oscar


acted at once : he got his brother Willie to announce
in The JForld that the unexampled success of the
poems had brought Oscar Wilde an offer from the
famous irr^presario, Major Pond, to lecture in the
States, and mcontinently he betook himself to New

On landing he boldly challenged Fortune again by
telling the custom officials that he had nothing to
declare but his genius. The phrase caught the pub-
lic fancy and his first lecture in Chickering Hall
brought together so distinguished an audience that
an impresario volunteered his services and Oscar be-
gan his tour under the best auspices. His subjects
were "The English Renaissance" and "The House
Beautiful." He had what the French call a siicces
de scandale — a success of notoriety In America, but
nothing more. People went to see his old-world
attire rather than to hear him. One is fain to con-
fess today that his lectures make very poor reading.
There is not a new thought in them; not even a mem-
orable expression; though now and then a gleam
of humor, an unexpected bird-like flirt of wing and
quick change of direction are diverting. The lec-
tures were a half-success. He made some money
by them, repaid his mother, and spread his name
abroad. But the cash result was not conclusive. In
a year or so we find him again in England; grown a
little wiser.


It is greatly to his credit that he did not settle
down in London. Whistler had studied in Paris, so
Oscar went there, too, using the money he had made
in America to better his culture. In a few months
he learned a great deal of French and got to know
most of the younger French writers. On his return
he talked of Verlaine as familiarly and admiringly
as he had formerly talked of Baudelaire.

Before going to France he had lectured in London
to the Art Students of the Royal Academy on art
and thereby excited Whistler's anger. Whistler as-
serted that Oscar had begged him for assistance in
composing this address; he had imparted some sim-
ple, necessary truths and from a gentleman had nat-
urally looked for the usual acknowledgment. But
Oscar had coolly appropriated his ideas, flaunted his
feathers and had omitted to give his master the
credit. There can be no doubt that Whistler's com-
plaint, though over-shrill and passionate, was jus-
tified: whoever compares Oscar's lecture on "The
English Renaissance of Art" with his lecture to the
Art Students will have to recognize a change of
front. Such phrases as "artists are not to copy
beauty but to create it ... a picture is a purely
decorative thing," proclaim their author. Oscar
himself, when questioned, admitted that there was
some truth in Whistler's contention. The newspaper
dispute between the two was brought to a head in
1885, when Whistler gave his famous Ten o'clock


lecture on Art: Whistler's lecture was infinitely bet-
ter than any of Oscar Wilde's. Twenty odd years
older than Wilde, Whistler was a master of all his
resources : he was not only witty, but he had new
views on art and original ideas. As a great artist he
knew that "there never was an artistic period.
There never was an Art-loving nation."

Again and again, too, he reached pure beauty of
feeling and expression. I thought the lecture mas-
terly, the best ever heard in London, and I said so
loudly enough. To my astonishment Oscar would
not admit the superlative quality of Whistler's talk:
he thought the message paradoxical and the ridi-
cule of the professors too bitter. "Whistler's like
a wasp," he cried, "and carries about with him a
poisoned sting." Oscar's kindly sweet nature re-
volted against the bitter aggressiveness of Whistler's
attitude. Besides, in essence, Whistler's lecture was
an attack on the academic theory taught in the uni-
versities, and defended naturally by a young scholar
like Oscar Wilde. Whistler's view that the artist
was sporadic, a happy chance, a "sport," in fact,
even in 1885, was a new view, and Oscar was not on
this level; he reviewed the master in the Pall Mall
Gazette, a review remarkable for one of the earliest
gleams of that genial humor which later became his
most characteristic gift: "Whistler," he said, "is
Indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting in


my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr.
Whistler himself entirely concurs."

Whistler retorted in The JVorld and Oscar re-
plied, but Whistler had altogether the best of the

A little later we had Whistler's famous and bit-
ter summing up. . . . "What has Oscar in com-
mon with Art? except that he dines at our tables
and picks from our platters the plums for the pud-
ding he peddles in the provinces. . . . Oscar — the
amiable, irresponsible, esurient Oscar — with no
more sense of a picture than of the fit of a coat, has
the courage of the opinions ... of others!"

Oscar Wilde learned almost all he knew of art
and of controversy from Whistler, but he was never
more than a pupil in either field; for controversy es-
pecially, he was poorly equipped: he had neither the
courage, nor the bitterness, nor the joy in conflict
of his great exemplar. It was only his geniality and
high intelligence which saved him from becoming
as manifest a butt as Mr. Sidney Colvin or poor
'Arry Quilter.

Ten years later he had become as witty as his mas-
ter, and a thousand times more humorous, but even
then he was a wretched fighter, too kindly ever to be
a good disputant.

Very soon after meeting Oscar Wilde for the
first time I confessed to myself that I liked himj


his talk was intensely quickening. He had something
unexpected to say on almost every subject. His
mind was agile and powerful, and he took dehght
in using it. He was well read, too, in several lan-
guages, especially in French, and his excellent mem-
ory stood him in good stead. Even when he merely
repeated what the great ones had said perfectly, he
added a new coloring. And already his character-
istic humor was beginning to illumine every topic
with lambent flashes.

The first time we lunched together he told me that
he had been asked by Harper's to write a book of
one hundred thousand words and offered a large
sum for it — I think some five thousand dollars —
in advance. He wrote to them gravely that he did
not know one hundred thousand words in English,
so could not undertake the work, and he laughed
merrily like a child at the cheeky reproof.

"I have sent their letters and my reply to the
Press," he added, and laughed again, probing me
with inquisitive eyes: how far did I understand that
self-advertisement was a necessity, notoriety a short-
cut to fame?

About this time an impromptu of his moved the
town to laughter. At some dinner-party it appeared
the ladies sat a little too long; Oscar wanted to
smoke. Suddenly the hostess drew his attention to
a candle on his left:


"Please put It out, Mr. Wilde," she said, "it's

Oscar turned to do as he was told with the re-
mark: "Happy candle !"

The delightful Impertinence had an extraordinary
success. . . .

Early in our friendship I was forced to see that
his love of the uncommon, his paradoxes and epi-
grams were natural to him, sprang immediately
from his nature and temperament. Perhaps it would
be well to define once for all his attitude towards
life with more scope and particularity than I have
hitherto done. It is often supposed that he had
no clear and coherent view of life, no belief, no
faith to guide his vagrant footsteps; but such an
opinion does him an Injustice. He had his own phil-
osophy, and held to it for long years with aston-
ishing tenacity. His attitude towards life can best be
seen if he be held up against Goethe. He took the
artistic view of life which Goethe had first stated,
and, indeed, in youth had overstated with an aston-
ishing persuasiveness: "the beautiful is more than
the good," said Goethe; "for it includes the good."

It seemed to Oscar, as it had seemed to young
Goethe, that "the extraordinary alone survives"; the
extraordinary whether good or bad; he therefore
sought after the extraordinary, and naturally enough
often fell into extravagance. But how stimulating
it was in London, where sordid platitudes drip and


drizzle all day long, to hear some one talking bril-
liant paradoxes. Oscar's appeal to the artistic intel-
ligence was as quickening as sunshine.

Goethe did not linger long in the half-way house
of unbelief; the murderer, he saw, may win notoriety
as easily as the martyr, but the memory of him will
not be cherished. ^'The fashion of this world pass-
eth away," said the great German, "I would fain oc-
cupy myself with that which endures."

Midway on life's road Goethe accepted Kant's
moral imperative and restated his creed: "A man
must resolve to live," he said, "not only for the Good
and Beautiful, but for the Common Weal."

Oscar did not push his thought into such transcen-
dental regions.

It was a pity, I often felt, that he had not studied
German as thoroughly as French; Goethe might
have done more for him than Verlaine or Balzac,
for In spite of some stodgy German faults Goethe is
the best guide through the mysteries of life that
the m.odern world has yet produced. Oscar Wilde
stopped where the religion of Goethe began; he
was as obstinate a pagan and Individualist as
Goethe had been in youth; he lived for the beautiful
and extraordinary, but not for the Good, and still
less for the Whole; he acknowledged no moral ob-
ligation; /;/ commune bonis was an ideal which never
said anything to him; he cared nothing for the com-
mon good; he held himself above the mass of the


people with an Englishman's extravagant insularity
and aggressive pride. Politics, religion — everything
interested him simply as a subject of art; life itself
was merely material for art. In fine he had taken
Whistler's position, the position most natural to an

The view was astounding in England, and new
everywhere in its onesidedness. Its passionate exag-
geration, however, was quickening, and there is, of
course, something to be said for it. The artistic view
of life is often higher than the ordinary religious
view; at least it does not deal in condemnations and
exclusions; it is more reasonable, more catholic, more
finely perceptive.

"The artist's view of life is the only possible one,'*
Oscar used to say, "and should be applied to every-
thing, most of all to religion and morality. Cava-
liers and Puritans are interesting for their costumes
and not for their convictions."

"There is no such thing as morality; for there Is
no general rule of spiritual health; it is all personal,
individual. ... I only demand that freedom
which I willingly concede to others. No one con-
demns another for preferring green to gold. Why
should any taste be condemned? Liking and dis-
liking are not under our control. I want to choose
the nourishment which suits my body and my soul."

I can almost hear him say the words with his
charming humorous smile and exquisite flash of


deprecation, as if he were half inclined to make fun
of his own creed.

It was not his views on art, however, which rec-
ommended him to the aristocratic set in London; but
his contempt for social reform, or rather his utter
indifference to It, and his English love of inequality.
He never took sufficient interest in politics to state
his position clearly or strongly, but his prejudices
were the prejudices of the English governing class
and were all in favor of Individual freedom, or
anarchy under the protection of the policeman.

"The poor are poor creatures," he used to say,
"and must always be hewers of wood and drawers of
water. They are really the dunghill out of which
men of genius and artists grow like flowers. Their
function is to give birth to genius and nourish It.
They have no other raison d'etre. Were men as in-
telligent as bees, all gifted individuals would be sup-
ported by the community, as the bees support their
queen. We should be the first charge on the State,
just as Socrates declared that he ought to be kept In
the Prytanoeum at the public expense.

"Don't talk to me, Frank, about the hardships
of the poor. The hardships of the poor are neces-
sities, but talk to me of the hardships of men of
genius, and I could weep tears of blood. I was
never so affected by any book In my life as I was by
the sordid misery of Balzac's poet, Eugene de Ru-


Naturally this creed of an exaggerated Individu-
alism appealed peculiarly to the best set in London.
It was eminently aristocratic.

1898 : After the Downfall

The more I thought the matter over, the more
clearly I saw that the only chance of salvation for
Oscar was to get him to work, to give him some
purpose In life, and the reader should remember
here that at this time I had not seen De Profundis,
and did not know that while In prison Oscar had
himself recognized this necessity. After all, I said
to myself, nothing is lost if he will only begin to
write. A man should be able to whistle happiness
and hope down the wind and take despair to his bed
and heart, and win courage from his harsh com-
panion. Happiness is no good to the artist: happi-
ness never creates anything but memories. . . .
If Oscar would work and not brood over the dead
past; but let it bury itself, he might yet come to soul-
health and achievement. He could win back every-
thing; his own respect, and the respect of his fellows,
if indeed that were worth winning. After all, an
artist must have at least the self-abnegation of the
hero, and heroic resolution to strive and strive, or
he will never bring It far even In his art. If I could
only get Oscar to work, It seemed to me everything
might yet come right. I spent a week with him,


lunching and dining and putting all this before him
in every way.

I noticed that he enjoyed the good eating and
the good drinking as intensely as ever. He was even
drinking too much I thought, and was beginning to
get stout and flabby again, but the good living was
a necessity to him, and it certainly did not prevent
him from talking charmingly. He was getting very
deaf, and on that account fell into unusual drifts
of silence, but the pauses seemed to set off the bril-
liance of his talk: his monologues were more inter-
esting than ever, his humor richer and more perva-
sive. For hours together he would keep his hear-
ers smiling delightedly, interested in all he said,
exquisitely amused by the happy verbal radiance
playing over his rhythmic speech. He would fre-
quently begin with some little story, or apologue, and
then toss witty nothings about like a conjuror play-
ing with colored balls, always ready to seize on the
first remark and illumine It with a novel significance,
or make it the reason for relating some new and In-
teresting experience. Other men may have talked as
well, but surely no one has ever had such wealth of
verbal humor. Dozens of the winged words of
today were of his coining on the spur of the mo-
ment: "Thick as thieves in Vallombrosa"; "The
woman who hesitates is won"; "Familiarity breeds
consent"; unexpected flirts of gay insight.

I perpetually praised these performances In order


to induce him to write : but as soon as I brought up
the subject he would shake his head gloomily:

*'0h, Frank, I cannot, you know my rooms; how
could I write there? A horrid bedroom like a closet,
and a little sitting-room without air or outlook.
Books everywhere; and no place to write; to tell
the truth, I cannot even read in it. No artist could
write In such sordid misery."

Again and again he came back to this. He harped
upon his poverty, so that I could not but see pur-
pose in it. He was already cunning in the art of get-
ting money without asking for it. My heart ached
for him; one goes down hill with such fatal speed
and ease, and the mire at the foot is so loathsome.

"You ought to work, Oscar. After all, why should
anyone help you, if you will not help yourself? If
I cannot assist you to save yourself, I am only doing
you harm."

"A base sophism, Frank, mere hypocrisy, as you
know: the fatted calf Is better than husks for any

*'You could easily win thousands and live like a
prince again. Why not make the effort?"

"It is harder than you think, Frank. If I had
pleasant sunny rooms I'd try. . . . It's harder
than you think."

"Nonsense, It's easy for you. Your punishment
has made your name known in every country in the
world. A book of yours would sell like wildfire; a


play of yours would draw in any capital. You
might live here like a prince. Shakespeare lost love
and friendship, hope and health to boot — everything,
and yet forced himself to write The Tempest. Why
can't you?"

"I'll try, Frank, I'll try."

I may just mention here that any praise of what
others had done, moved Oscar to emulation. He al-
ways compared himself to the greatest. In one of
my articles on Shakespeare in The Saturday Review,
In 1896, I declared that no one had ever given com-
pleter record of himself than Shakespeare: "We
know him better than we know any of our con-
temporaries," I wrote, "and he is better worth know-
ing." When this appeared Oscar wrote to me prais-
ing the article; but condemning the phrase.

"Frank, Frank, you have forgotten me," were
his words, "surely I am better worth knowing than

I did not agree with him, but it didn't matter.
I had to go back to England, but I crossed to
Paris early in the summer, and found he had written

I often talked with him about it; but now he
changed his ground a little.

"I can't write, Frank. When I take up my pen
all the past comes back: I cannot bear my thoughts
. . . regret and remorse, like twin dogs, wait to
seize me at any idle moment. I must go out and


watch life; amuse and interest myself, or I should
go mad. . . . You don't know how sore it is about
my heart as soon as I am alone. I am face to face
with my own soul: the Oscar of five years ago, with
his beautiful secure life and his glorious easy tri-
umphs, comes up before me, and I cannot stand the
contrast. . . . My eyes burn with tears. If you
care for me you will not ask me to write."

"You promised to try," I said, somewhat harshly,
"and I want you to try. You haven't suffered more
than Dante suffered in exile and poverty; a man as
proud as Lucifer forced to be a parasite; yet you
know if he had suffered ten times as much he would
have written it all down. Tears, indeed I the fire in
his eyes would have dried the tears."

"True enough, Frank, but don't you see that
Dante was all of one piece? I am at war with my-
self. I was born to sing the joy and pride of life, the
pleasure of living, the delight in everything beautiful
in this most beautiful world, and they took me and
tortured me till I learned sorrow and pity. Now I
cannot sing the joy, Frank, because I know the suf-
fering and I was never made to sing of suffering.
I hate it and I want to sing the love-songs of
joy and delight. It is joy alone which appeals to
my soul. The joy of life and beauty and love — I
could sing the song of Apollo the Sun-God, and they
try to force me to sing the lament of the tortured
Marsyas. . ^,^ ."


This to me was his true and final confession. His
second fall after leaving prison had put him "at war
with himself." That is, I thinlc, the heart of truth
about him; the song of sorrow, of pity and renun-
ciation was not his song, and the experience of suf-
fering prevented the great pagan from singing the
delight of life and his joy in beauty. It never seemed
to occur to him that he should stand with one foot
on self-indulgence and with the other on renuncia-
tion, and reach a faith which should include both in a
completer acceptance of life.

In spite of his sunny nature he had a certain
amount of jealousy and envy in him which was al-
ways brought to light by the popular success of those
whom he had known and measured. I remember his
telling me once that he wrote his first play because he
was annoyed at the way Pinero was being praised.
"Pinero, who can't write at all: he can make plots
and scenes and nothing else. His characters are
made of dough: and never was there such a worth-
less style, or rather such a complete absence of style:
he writes like a grocer's assistant."

I noticed now that this trait of jealousy was
stronger in him than ever. One day I threw him an
English illustrated paper which I had bought on my
way to lunch. It contained a picture of Lord Cur-
zon as Viceroy of India. He was photographed in
a carriage with his wife by his side: the State car-
riage drawn by four horses, with outriders, and es-


corted by cavalry and cheering crowds — all the para-
phernalia and pomp of imperial power.

"Do you see that, Frank?" Oscar cried; "fancy
George Curzon being treated like that. I knew him
well ; a more perfect example of plodding mediocrity
was never seen in the world. He had never a
thought or phrase above the common ..."

"Now George Curzon plays king in India : Wynd-
ham is a Secretary of State, and I'm hiding in shame
and poverty here In Paris, an exile and outcast. Do
you wonder that I cannot write, Frank? The dread-
ful injustice of life maddens me. After all, what
have they done in comparison with what I have

"Close the eyes of all of us now and fifty years
hence, or a hundred years hence, no one will know
anything about the Curzons, or the Wyndhams:
whether they lived or died will be a matter of indif-
ference to every one ; but my comedies and my stories
and The Ballad of Reading Gaol will be known and
read by millions, and even my unhappy fate will call
forth world-wide sympathy."

"That's your real reward, Oscar, an exceeding
great reward; that's what you have labored for,
fame and sympathy when you are dead, a longer
breath of life than other men can hope to enjoy, and
that is why you should write now. Go on, do more,
and do it better."


"Oh, Frank, It's impossible, impossible for me
to work under these disgraceful conditions."

"But you can have better conditions now and more
money as you want it if you'll begin to work."

He shook his head despairingly. Again and again
I tried, but again and again failed to move him to
any effort. At last one day I said to him:

"The only thing that will make you write, Oscar,
is absolute, blank poverty. That's the sharpest spur
after all — necessity."

"You don't know me, Frank," he replied tartly.

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 7 of 20)