I embarked recently on my dad’s intimidating Collected Oscar Wilde. So far it has been accessed solely for plays and the occasional quote from a poem. Now I am reading essays, and an early favourite is, naturally, a dialectic.
Vivian: I intend to call it The Decay of Lying: A Protest.
Cyril: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
Vivian: I assure you they do not. They never rise beyond the the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which its own evidence. If man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once. No, politicians won’t do.
Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar. The mantle of the sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned ardour and their unreal rhetoric are delightful. They can make the worse appear the better cause, as though they were fresh from Leontine schools, and have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittals for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakably innocent. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon. One feels it as one wades through their columns. It is always the unreadable that occurs. I am afraid there is not much to be said in favour of either the lawyer or the journalist. Besides, what I am pleading for is lying in art.
Cyril: What magazine do you intend this for?
Vivian: The Retrospective Review. I think I told you that the elect had reviewed it.
Cyril: Whom do you mean by the ‘elect’?
Vivian: Oh, the Tired Hedonists, of course. It is a club to which I belong. We are supposed to fear faded roses, and to have a sort of cult for Domitian. I am afraid you are not eligible. You are too fond of simple pleasures.
Skilled Sophist. It has a good ring to it, eh? Maybe it shall be my matrimonial ad when I am jaded and over the hill.
I don’t have enough of a classical education to keep up with him in the longer poems, finding them obscure when I don’t find them annoying or flowery. I lack the energy, not to mention the ability, to decipher pages full of dense allusion, and I am thus drawn to his shorter work. I recognise this is entirely my own deficiency, as a little deconstruction of my almost-favourite will demonstrate.
I have no store
Of gryphon-guarded gold;
Now, as before,
Bare is the shepherd’s fold,
Rubies nor pearls
Have I to gem thy throat;
Yet woodland girls
Have loved the shepherd’s note.
Then pluck a reed
And bid me to sing to thee,
For I would feed
Thine ears with melody,
Who art more fair
Thant fairest fleur-de-lys,
More sweet and rare
Than sweetest ambergris.
What dost thou fear?
Young Hyacinth is slain,
Pan is not here,
And will not come again.
No horned Faun
Treads down the yellow leas
Hylas is dead
Now will he e’er divine
Those little red
Rose-petalled lips of thine.
On the high hill
No ivory dryads play,
Silver and still
Sinks the sad autumn day.
Warned duly by wiki, I read this poem expecting to read a conflicted imperialist. But I didn’t expect him to be quite as wavering as the poem turned out to be. I thought he would be cut and dry about white privilege; the way he is about most things. Make of it what you will.
He starts of a conservative romantic:
The brazen-throated clarion blows
Across the Pathan’s reedy fen,
And the high steeps of Indian snows
Shake to the tread of armed men.
And many an Afghan chief, who lies
Beneath his cool pomegranate-trees,
Clutches his sword in fierce surmise
When on the mountain-side he sees
The fleet-foot Marri scout, who comes
To tell how he hath heard afar
The measured roll of English drums
Beat at the gates of Kandahar.
For southern wind and east wind meet
Where, girt and crowned by sword and fire,
England with bare and bloody feet
Climbs the steep road of wide empire.
… gets a little despondent.
O lonely Himalayan height,
Grey pillar of the Indian sky,
Where saw’st thou last in clanging flight
Our winged dogs of Victory?
The almond-groves of Samarcand,
Bokhara, where red lilies blow,
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go:
And on from thence to Ispahan,
The gilded garden of the sun,
Whence the long dusty caravan
Brings cedar wood and vermilion;
And that dread city of Cabool
Set at the mountain’s scarped feet,
Whose marble tanks are ever full
With water for the noonday heat:
Where through the narrow straight Bazaar
A little maid Circassian
Is led, a present from the Czar
Unto some old and bearded Khan, –
Here have our wild war-eagles flown,
And flapped wide wings in fiery fight;
But the sad dove, that sits alone
In England – she hath no delight.
.. And ends up fair militant
O wandering graves! O restless sleep!
O silence of the sunless day!
O still ravine! O stormy deep!
Give up your prey! Give up your prey!
And thou whose wounds are never healed,
Whose weary race is never won,
O Cromwell’s England! must thou yield
For every inch of ground a son?
Finally, Wilde’s finest exposition in artistic lying.
To my wife.
With a copy of my poems.
This would be Constance Lloyd, QC (no, really. They even had sons, one Vyvyan and the other Cyril.)
I can write no stately poem
As a prelude to my lay;
From a poet to a poem
I would dare to say.
For if of these fallen petals
One to you seem fair,
Love will waft it till it settles
On your hair.
And when wind and winter harden
All the loveless land,
I will whisper of the garden,
You will understand.
Do you think she did?