“Oscar Wilde” — Dorothy Parker

oscar wilde

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome — John Vassos

“To Read or Not to Read” — Oscar Wilde

“To Read or Not to Read” by Oscar Wilde

Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:

1.  Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St. Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.

2.  Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.

3.  Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.

The third class is by far the most important.  To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning.  But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.

Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that it has no time to think.  Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst Hundred Books,’ and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.

After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns.  I mean the Greek Anthology.  The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the complete understanding of the Greek spirit.

I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over.  Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place?  If, in order to make room for him, it be necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble.

No doubt, both in the Curse of Kehama and in the Christian Year there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers.  It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.

 

“Mankind is accursed because our existence on this earth does not tolerate any well-defined and stable hierarchy” (Witold Gombrowicz)

Memories! Mankind is accursed because our existence on this earth does not tolerate any well-defined and stable hierarchy, everything continually flows, spills over, moves on, everyone must be aware of and be judged by everyone else, and the opinions that the ignorant, dull, and slow-witted hold about us are no less important than the opinions of the bright, the enlightened, the refined. This is because man is profoundly dependent on the reflection of himself in another man’s soul, be it even the soul of an idiot. I absolutely disagree with my fellow writers who treat the opinions of the dull-witted with an aristocratic haughtiness and declare: odi profanum vulgus. What a cheap and simplistic way of avoiding reality, what a shoddy escape into specious loftiness! I maintain, on the contrary, that the more dull and narrow-minded they are, the more urgent and compelling are their opinions, just as an ill-fitting shoe hurts us more than a well-fitting one. Oh, those judgments, the bottomless pit of people’s judgments and opinions about your wisdom, feelings, and character, about all the details of your personality—it’s a pit that opens up before the daredevil who drapes his thoughts in print and lets them loose on paper, oh, printed paper, paper, paper! And I’m not even talking about the heartfelt opinions so fondly held by our aunts, no, I mean the opinions of those other aunts—the cultural aunts, those female semi-writers and tacked-on semi-critics who make pronouncements in literary magazines. Indeed, world culture has been beset by a flock of superfluous hens patched-on, pinned-on, to literature, who have become finely tuned to spiritual values and well versed in aesthetics, frequently entertaining views and opinions of their own, who have even caught on to the notions that Oscar Wilde is passé and that Bernard Shaw is a master of paradox. Oh, they are on to the fact that they must be independent, profound, unobtrusively assertive, and filled with auntie kindliness. Auntie, auntie, auntie! Unless you have ever found yourself in the laboratory of a cultural aunt and been dissected, mute and without a groan, by her trivializing mentality that turns all life lifeless, unless you have ever seen an auntie’s critique of yourself in a newspaper, you have no concept of triviality, and auntie-triviality in particular.

Further, let us consider the opinions of men and women of the landed gentry, the opinions of schoolgirls, the narrow-minded opinions of minor office clerks, the bureaucratic opinions of high officials, the opinions of lawyers in the provinces, the hyperbolic opinions of students, the arrogant opinions of little old men, and the opinions of journalists, the opinions of social activists as well as the opinions of doctors’ wives, and, finally, the opinions of children listening to their parents’ opinions, the opinions of underling chambermaids and of cooks, the opinions of our female cousins, the opinions of schoolgirls—a whole ocean of opinions, each one defining you within someone else, and creating you in another man’s soul. It’s as if you were being born inside a thousand souls that are too tight-fitting for comfort!

From Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke.

 

Modernity (Oscar Wilde)

modernity

“A picture has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy” (Oscar Wilde)

We never know what an artist is going to do.  Of course not.  The artist is not a specialist.  All such divisions as animal painters, landscape painters, painters of Scotch cattle in an English mist, painters of English cattle in a Scotch mist, racehorse painters, bull-terrier painters, all are shallow.  If a man is an artist he can paint everything.

The object of art is to stir the most divine and remote of the chords which make music in our soul; and colour is indeed, of itself a mystical presence on things, and tone a kind of sentinel.

Am I pleading, then, for mere technique?  No.  As long as there are any signs of technique at all, the picture is unfinished.  What is finish?  A picture is finished when all traces of work, and of the means employed to bring about the result, have disappeared.

In the case of handicraftsmen—the weaver, the potter, the smith—on their work are the traces of their hand.  But it is not so with the painter; it is not so with the artist.

Art should have no sentiment about it but its beauty, no technique except what you cannot observe.  One should be able to say of a picture not that it is ‘well painted,’ but that it is ‘not painted.’

What is the difference between absolutely decorative art and a painting?  Decorative art emphasises its material: imaginative art annihilates it.  Tapestry shows its threads as part of its beauty: a picture annihilates its canvas: it shows nothing of it.  Porcelain emphasises its glaze: water-colours reject the paper.

A picture has no meaning but its beauty, no message but its joy.  That is the first truth about art that you must never lose sight of.  A picture is a purely decorative thing.

From Oscar Wilde’s “Lecture to Art Students,” 1883.

Oscar Wilde at Work — Aubrey Beardsley

“The Star-Child” — Oscar Wilde

“The Star-Child” by Oscar Wilde

Once upon a time two poor Woodcutters were making their way home through a great pine-forest.  It was winter, and a night of bitter cold.  The snow lay thick upon the ground, and upon the branches of the trees: the frost kept snapping the little twigs on either side of them, as they passed: and when they came to the Mountain-Torrent she was hanging motionless in air, for the Ice-King had kissed her.

So cold was it that even the animals and the birds did not know what to make of it.

‘Ugh!’ snarled the Wolf, as he limped through the brushwood with his tail between his legs, ‘this is perfectly monstrous weather.  Why doesn’t the Government look to it?’

‘Weet! weet! weet!’ twittered the green Linnets, ‘the old Earth is dead and they have laid her out in her white shroud.’

‘The Earth is going to be married, and this is her bridal dress,’ whispered the Turtle-doves to each other.  Their little pink feet were quite frost-bitten, but they felt that it was their duty to take a romantic view of the situation.

‘Nonsense!’ growled the Wolf.  ‘I tell you that it is all the fault of the Government, and if you don’t believe me I shall eat you.’  The Wolf had a thoroughly practical mind, and was never at a loss for a good argument.

‘Well, for my own part,’ said the Woodpecker, who was a born philosopher, ‘I don’t care an atomic theory for explanations.  If a thing is so, it is so, and at present it is terribly cold.’

Terribly cold it certainly was.  The little Squirrels, who lived inside the tall fir-tree, kept rubbing each other’s noses to keep themselves warm, and the Rabbits curled themselves up in their holes, and did not venture even to look out of doors.  The only people who seemed to enjoy it were the great horned Owls.  Their feathers were quite stiff with rime, but they did not mind, and they rolled their large yellow eyes, and called out to each other across the forest, ‘Tu-whit!  Tu-whoo!  Tu-whit!  Tu-whoo! what delightful weather we are having!’ Continue reading ““The Star-Child” — Oscar Wilde”

“The Happy Prince” — Oscar Wilde

“The Happy Prince” by Oscar Wilde

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince.  He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.

He was very much admired indeed.  “He is as beautiful as a weathercock,” remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; “only not quite so useful,” he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.

“Why can’t you be like the Happy Prince?” asked a sensible mother of her little boy who was crying for the moon.  “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.”

“I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy,” muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.

“He looks just like an angel,” said the Charity Children as they came out of the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks and their clean white pinafores.

“How do you know?” said the Mathematical Master, “you have never seen one.”

“Ah! but we have, in our dreams,” answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.

One night there flew over the city a little Swallow.  His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed.  He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.

“Shall I love you?” said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow.  So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples.  This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.

“It is a ridiculous attachment,” twittered the other Swallows; “she has no money, and far too many relations”; and indeed the river was quite full of Reeds.  Then, when the autumn came they all flew away.

After they had gone he felt lonely, and began to tire of his lady-love.  “She has no conversation,” he said, “and I am afraid that she is a coquette, for she is always flirting with the wind.”  And certainly, whenever the wind blew, the Reed made the most graceful curtseys.  “I admit that she is domestic,” he continued, “but I love travelling, and my wife, consequently, should love travelling also.”

“Will you come away with me?” he said finally to her; but the Reed shook her head, she was so attached to her home.

“You have been trifling with me,” he cried.  “I am off to the Pyramids.  Good-bye!” and he flew away.

All day long he flew, and at night-time he arrived at the city.  “Where shall I put up?” he said; “I hope the town has made preparations.”

Then he saw the statue on the tall column. Continue reading ““The Happy Prince” — Oscar Wilde”

“The Model Millionaire” — Oscar Wilde

“The Model Millionaire” by Oscar Wilde

Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming fellow. Romance is the privilege of the rich, not the profession of the unemployed. The poor should be practical and prosaic. It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating. These are the great truths of modern life which Hughie Erskine never realised. Poor Hughie! Intellectually, we must admit, he was not of much importance. He never said a brilliant or even an ill-natured thing in his life. But then he was wonderfully good-looking, with his crisp brown hair, his clear-cut profile, and his grey eyes. He was as popular with men as he was with women, and he had every accomplishment except that of making money. His father had bequeathed him his cavalry sword, and a History of the Peninsular War in fifteen volumes. Hughie hung the first over his looking-glass, put the second on a shelf between Ruff’s Guide and Bailey’sMagazine, and lived on two hundred a year that an old aunt allowed him. He had tried everything. He had gone on the Stock Exchange for six months; but what was a butterfly to do among bulls and bears? He had been a tea-merchant for a little longer, but had soon tired of pekoe and souchong. Then he had tried selling dry sherry. That did not answer; the sherry was a little too dry. Ultimately he became nothing, a delightful, ineffectual young man with a perfect profile and no profession. Continue reading ““The Model Millionaire” — Oscar Wilde”

The Picture of Dorian Gray — Ivan Albright

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Oscar Wilde’s Letter to Walt Whitman

Partial transcript from The Library of Congress:

Before I leave America I must see you again–there is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honour so much. With warm affection, and honourable admiration, Oscar Wilde.

The Walt Whitman Archive fleshes out the story:

On 18 January 1882 Wilde visited Walt Whitman in Camden, where the poet was then living with his brother and sister-in-law. Wilde told Whitman that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was first published, that Lady Wilde had read the poems to her son, and that later, at Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves to read on their walks. Flattered, Whitman offered Wilde, whom he later described as “a fine large handsome youngster,” some of his sister-in-law’s homemade elderberry wine, and they conversed for two hours. Asked later by a friend how he managed to get the elderberry wine down, Wilde replied: “If it had been vinegar I would have drunk it all the same, for I have an admiration for that man which I can hardly express”