I found this lovely animation dedicated to the life and works of Oscar Wilde, by lucylou21, and I thought I’d share.
Oscar Wilde wrote two books of what are commonly described as fairy tales in his career. The Happy Prince and Other Tales is the best known of the two, being closer to what we think of as the traditional children’s storybook, despite the tragic denouement of many of its tales. I’m going to discuss the second volume, A House of Pomegranates, which is somehow much darker, more adult, bearing much more of the ‘note of doom’, which Wilde would later write, in De Profundis, ran throughout all his fairy tales.
Significantly, the tales were published not long after Wilde met the man who was to spell his eventual downfall, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, in 1891. These fairy tales indicate a marked step away from the child-like tone of Wilde’s earlier volume, and explore in much greater depth the joys and perils of erotic desire, the love of beauty, and indulgences in sensuality. Norbert Kohl observes that A House of Pomegranates is ‘a symbolic expression of [Wilde’s] sexual ambivalence,’ indicating that Wilde had found a certain acceptance of his homosexuality, though the narratives clearly indicate that he was still aware of the dangers it posed. Anne Varty also points out the dual symbolism of the pomegranate, ‘which antiquity saw as the fruit of Hades and dark captivity, but which Christian iconography revisioned as the fruit of resurrection and rebirth.’ Whether Wilde himself was aware of these contradictory interpretations is unclear, although judging from his excellent knowledge of both Classical literature and theology, it is certainly possible. Thus the volume represents the duality of Wilde’s own persona: he is at once the decadent lover of other men, and the Anglican socialist who longs for redemption.
‘The Young King’ clearly represents this clash of interests in Wilde’s philosophies. The story concerns a boy king whose love of luxury and artistic beauty lead him to great extravagancies. However, a dream on the night before he is due to be crowned which shows him the sufferings of the poor who enable him to live in such affluence causes him to renounce his riches, and he is blessed by God in return. Although the most hopeful story within the collection, ‘The Young King’ still displays the agonising conflict between the love of art and the sympathy to the plight of the poor which Wilde himself experienced. The tale is also replete with homoerotic imagery. The Young King’s beauty is emphasised in the tale: he is ‘wild-eyed… like a brown woodland faun,’ prompting Jack Zipes to see him as ‘a homoerotic portrayal of an idealised lover.’ Note also that the art so loved by the King portrays exclusively male beauty – he adores ‘a Greek gem, carved with the figure of Adonis’ as well as a silver representation of Endymion, and is discovered ‘pressing his warm lips to the marble brow of an antique statue… inscribed with the name of the Bithynian slave of Hadrian.’ There is an indulgence of pure sensuality in this passage, an unadulterated joy in the worship of exquisite male beauty. There is a sense that homosexual desire – much more so that heterosexual – is bound up solely with beauty and love, liberated from concerns of procreation. It is a love which exists purely for the joy of loving, much the same as the love of art, which holds no utilitarian function but is rewarding nonetheless. It is also significant that among the King’s art collection is the figure of ‘a laughing Narcissus in green bronze [holding] a polished mirror above its head.’ Narcissus has often been associated with homosexual love – consider the Lacanian theory of the mirror image. Narcissus, like the homosexual, cannot feel anything for the allure of the Other, focussing instead on his own image, represented in another man. The statue therefore both represents the single-mindedness of the Young King, who cannot see beyond his own aesthetic pleasures, and acts as a motif for same-sex desire. While the tale has a happy ending of sorts – the King repents his thoughtlessness and is redeemed – it is telling that Wilde can only atone for the boy’s human follies by taking him outside the human and making him almost a divine being. It demonstrates that for Wilde, there was no easy, human solution to the predicament of his aesthetic and homosexual desires and the desire to care for his children and improve social conditions. His personal agony has no easy solution, and he indulges in the fantasy of divine benediction as a means of vicarious comfort.
The image of mirrors and self-confrontation reappear in two other stories in the volume, ‘The Star Child’ and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta.’ ‘The Star Child’ concerns the story of a beautiful youth who is so enamoured with himself that he becomes cruel, and it is only through losing his beauty and enduring much suffering that he can redeem himself. Here, the reference to Narcissus takes form in the boy’s extreme vanity, and once again Wilde takes the opportunity to dwell on the pleasures of male beauty. The child is represented as a strange amalgamation of nature and artifice, with his white skin, ‘delicate as sawn ivory,’ his hair ‘like the rings of the daffodil,’ his lips like ‘petals’ and eyes like ‘violets by a river of pure water.’ Wilde also declares that ‘his body [was] like the narcissus of a field where the mower comes not’ – another reference to the Greek hero. He is the perfect blend of art and what is most pleasing about nature, and once more the beauty of men is glorified. Significantly, it is when the Star Child cruelly rejects a woman – in this case, his mother – that his beauty is taken from him. His horrified gaze into the mirror reveals ‘the face of a toad’ and a ‘body scaled like an adder.’ This moment of revelation could easily be a reference to Wilde’s realisation of his homosexuality – many critics such as Norbert Kohl have seen the rejection of the mother as Wilde’s rejection of his wife, to whom the volume was dedicated. Notably, the tale ends on a bitter note. Despite regaining his beauty and earning the right to a kingdom, Wilde informs the reader that the Star Child will die after three years because his suffering had been too great, and that the next king would rule badly. This is yet another blow to the ‘Happily Ever After’ of fairy tales, and provides further evidence of Wilde’s ‘note of doom’, which realises that the homosexual lover will never achieve true acceptance or happiness in this world.
‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ has a similarly gloomy outlook. A young dwarf, who is captured to entertain the young Infanta on her birthday and consequently falls in love with her, is brought to recognise his own ugliness and dies of grief. Significantly, the story portrays the Infanta as cruel and thoughtless: upon learning that the dwarf has died of a broken heart, she commands that ‘for the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ and goes in search of other entertainment. Jerusha McCormack observes that ‘the love of women, as [Wilde’s] fairy tales explicitly show, is shallow and cruel.’ The implication is that true understanding and companionship can only be found with other men. The fateful mirror makes another appearance here, when the dwarf is struck with the horrible realisation that he is ‘misshapen and hunchbacked, foul to look at and grotesque,’ something he had never realised when he lived outside of society. McCormack suggests that this realisation could be ‘a reflection of Wilde’s own confrontation with himself in the mirror of homosexual love.’ It is a sudden awareness of shame, a representation of the disgrace of the invert, and it is a realisation terrible enough to strike death into the unfortunate dwarf’s heart. It is important to note that this shame was only brought about because the dwarf was taken into society and made to confront it by his treatment at the hands of others. This suggests that the invert is not naturally at fault, and that it is only through the condemnation of society that he is punished. However, this defence of the social outcast is embittered by death, indicating that Wilde was aware that for him at least, there would be no escape from the recriminations which society would level at his own lifestyle.
The final tale in Wilde’s volume, ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’, deserves special mention for the ways in which Wilde both imitated and developed two of Hans Andersen’s tales, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Shadow.’ Obviously, it is a tale of love between a mermaid and a human, and also deals with themes of split identity and self-annihilation which are addressed in ‘The Shadow.’ However, Wilde inverts Andersen’s tales. Jack Zipes observes that ‘instead of the usual sea-nymph seeking a human soul, Wilde has the fisherman give up his soul to join the mermaid and to enjoy the sensual pleasures of her natural love.’ No squeamishness about physical pleasure or sexual initiation here. Instead of representing it as a defect, the tale glorifies in the mermaid’s Otherness, in her hair like ‘fine gold in a cup of glass’, her ivory skin, her tail of ‘silver and pearl’ and her lips like ‘sea-coral.’ She is an object of perfect artifice, of beauty absolute. Norbert Kohl sees the fisherman’s adoration of her as ‘a mixture of aesthetic sensuality and the thrill of the abnormal,’ and believes it represents a ‘renunciation of “normal” sexual behaviour.’ The love between man and mermaid is symbolic of homosexual love, which transcends the laws of nature for the sake of beauty. It is impossible to read of the condemnations levelled at the couple by the priest without thinking of the attitude of society towards the homosexual. Upon discovering the dead lovers, he pronounces them and their kind ‘accursed’, and proclaims that they were ‘slain by God’s judgement,’ having pronounced earlier that ‘the love of the body is vile… and vile and evil are the Pagan things God suffers to wander through His world.’ The reference is blatantly made to the attitude concerning same-sex love which Wilde would eventually suffer from. The reader is drawn to sympathise with the Fisherman, who proclaims that love is better than anything on earth, and therefore cannot be a sin in the eyes of God. The priest’s ultimate change of heart signifies hope for a future without tyranny or judgement, yet once again Wilde’s solution is bittersweet, as it is earned through the sacrifice of the Fisherman and his lover.
Fundamentally, Wilde’s strange fairy tales are narratives of the beauty and pain of homosexual desire. They portray the agonizing conflicts between the desire for a forbidden love and the desire for a family, between the love of beauty and the guilt inspired by the suffering of others, and indicate that the fairy tale has moved beyond simple wish-fulfilment and suppression, and has come to consciously include all the agonies and forbidden desires of illicit sexuality.
Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (1870 – 1945) is best known as Oscar Wilde’s lover, and is often blamed for Wilde’s downfall. However, he was a poet in his own right. He lacked the genius of the older man, but some of his work is very lovely. The most famous, of course, is ‘Two Loves’ – one of the pieces of literature quoted at Wilde’s trial as evidence against him. One of my other favourites though, and a much lesser-known poem, is called ‘The Dead Poet’. Douglas wrote it after hearing the news of the death of his exiled former lover.
The Dead Poet
I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face
All radiant and unshadowed of distress,
And as of old, in music measureless,
I heard his golden voice and marked him trace
Under the common thing the hidden grace,
And conjure words out of emptiness,
Till mean things put on beauty like a dress
And all the world was an enchanted place.
And then methought outside a fast locked gate
I mourned the loss of unrecorded words,
Forgotten tales and mysteries half said,
Wonders that might have been articulate,
And voiceless thoughts like murdered singing birds.
And so I woke and knew that he was dead.
A lot of Wilde fans blame Bosie for what happened, but I actually feel more pity for him than anything. Yes, the relationship with Oscar was clearly a destructive one, and yes, Douglas was obviously very selfish at times, but with Queensbury for a father who wouldn’t have issues? Also, he truly knew how to live decadently (before he turned to Catholicism at least), and that is something I can always appreciate.
One of my favourite Wilde poems, Taedium Vitae
To stab my youth with desperate knives, to wear
This paltry age’s gaudy livery,
To let each base hand filch my treasury,
To mesh my soul within a woman’s hair,
And to be mere Fortune’s lackeyed groom, – I swear
I love it not! these things are less to me
Than the thin foam that frets upon the sea,
Less than the thistledown of summer air
Which hath no seed: better to stand aloof
Far from these slanderous fools who mock my life
Knowing me not, better the lowliest roof
Fit for the meanest hind to sojourn in,
Than to go back to that hoarse cave of strife
Where my white soul first kissed the mouth of sin.
I just love this poem so much. It’s not often that Wilde gets so explicitly bleak in his writing. He wears it well, and it’s especially poignant considering what happened to him at the hands of the public.
What follows is what I think of as the definitive decadent manifesto – Oscar Wilde’s Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. First published in December 1894, in the first (and only edition of Oxford student magazine, The Chameleon, this collection of epigrams defy conventional morality, elevate art above nature, and hold utility in the utmost contempt. It doesn’t really matter whether Wilde truly believed in these philosophies. The point is that he wrote them.
Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young
The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.
Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
If the poor only had profiles there would be no problem in solving the problem of poverty.
Those who see any difference between soul and body have neither.
A really well-made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature.
Religions die when they are proved to be true. Science is the record of dead religions.
The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.
Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance.
Dullness is the coming of age of seriousness.
In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.
If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.
Pleasure is the only thing one should live for. Nothing ages like happiness.
It is only by not paying one’s bills that one can hope to live in the memory of the commercial classes.
no crime is vulgar, but all vulgarity is crime. vulgarity is the conduct of others.
Only the shallow know themselves.
Time is a waste of money.
One should always be a little improbable.
There is a fatality about all good resolutions. They are invariably made too soon.
The only way to atone for being occasionally a little over-dressed is by being always absolutely over-educated.
To be premature is to be perfect.
Any preoccupation with ideas of what is right and wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development.
Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.
A truth ceases to be true when more than one person believes in it.
In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.
Greek dress was in its essence inartistic. Nothing should reveal the body but the body.
One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.
It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man’s deeper nature is soon found out.
Industry is the root of all ugliness.
The ages live in history through their anachronisms.
It is only the gods who taste of death. Apollo has passed away, by Hyacinth, whom men say he slew, lives on. Nero and Narcissus are always with us.
The old believe everything: the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything.
The condition of perfection is idleness: the aim of perfection is youth.
Only the great masters of style ever succeed in being obscure.
There is something tragic about the enormous number of young men there are in England at the present moment who start life with perfect profiles, and end by adopting some useful profession.
To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.