The Difficult Art of Prose
Oscar Wilde would describe his undergraduate years at Magdalen College (1874 – 1878) as the most “flower-like” of his life; he may also have been thinking of his time there when he remarked: “I may not have sown any wild oats, but I did plant a few orchids.” The young Irishman had decided, in 1874, to complete in Oxford the classics degree he had begun at Trinity College, Dublin three years previously.
At Magdalen, Wilde flourished in variegated ways. He mastered the rigors of the literae humaniores or “Greats” course, carrying off a first in his honour moderations examination in 1876, a success which prompted him to contemplate pursuing an academic career. During his undergraduate years Wilde also perfected the persona—part aesthete, part Disraelian dandy, and part Athenian philosopher—with which he would later make a splash in London’s artistic and social circles.
The aesthetic flaneur who liked to pose as a “dilettante trifling with his books” at Oxford was really only pretending to be wicked. The truth was, Wilde read hard “surreptitiously, into the small hours” in a bedroom bursting with books and cigarette smoke. Along with all the primary and secondary set texts of his Greats course, he devoured at Magdalen the writings of Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer, Darwin, Clifford, Buckle, and Spencer, drawing from them the central tenets of his own intellectual credo. He wrote out quotations from these authors into a series of marble-boarded notebooks, which evidence the perspiration as well as the inspiration behind his extraordinary culture. Wilde’s poetry also blossomed at Oxford. It was at Magdalen that he refined a poetic voice and language that was eclectic and flexible, penning verses that impressed the editors of various Oxford and Dublin magazines.
Wilde made another extravagant advance at Oxford—in the art of English prose. It was Walter Pater, the Brasenose Classics tutor, and sinless master of purple aesthetic prose, who influenced him in this context, as in so many others. “Why do you always write poetry?” the diffident don asked the Magdalen undergraduate at their first meeting, “Why do you not write prose? Prose is so much more difficult”. Wilde later confessed that he “did not quite comprehend what Mr. Pater really meant,” having always supposed, from his reading of Carlyle and Ruskin, that prose sprang “from enthusiasm rather than from art. I did not [know],” he admitted, “that even prophets correct their proofs.” “And it was not,” he remembered, “until I carefully studied [Pater’s own] beautiful and suggestive essays on the Renaissance that I fully realised what a wonderful self-conscious art the art of English prose-writing really is. Pater’s essays became to me ‘the golden book of spirit and sense, the holy writ of beauty’.”
Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873)— the book that, as Wilde famously remarked, had “such a strange influence over [his] life”—contains essays on philosophers, poets, and artists of the Renaissance such as Leonardo, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. Pater enters into a work of art imaginatively, elucidating the impression it makes on him and defining its especial character. He calls this the “true truth” about an artwork, next to which the factual truths concerning its production and history are insignificant. Pater developed a distinctive impressionistic, and unashamedly subjective style, in which he could at once convey these ‘true truths’, vividly evoke the works of art under discussion, and also celebrate the ecstasy of the “aesthetic experience”, art offering, in his view, a heightened form of sensual and spiritual pleasure rather than moral or intellectual instruction. The baroque prose poems Pater carved with such fastidious care were aimed at a cultivated general readership, rather than at scrupulous Oxford scholars, who were not slow to point out their inaccuracies.
Pater probably advised Wilde to commence his apprenticeship as an author by imitating the best prose models. The don had a considerable gift for mimicry, which Wilde admired intensely; he later praised Pater’s ability to echo, in his critical prose, “the colour and accent and tone” of whichever writer he happened to be analysing. The idea of imitation as the best beginning for a budding writer was, in any case, a commonplace of the period, and the practice was second nature to classicists such as Pater and Wilde. As part of his Greats course Wilde regularly translated lines of Greek and Latin into particular styles of English verse or prose (and vice versa), rendering Homer into colloquial Elizabethan English or Wordsworth into the ancient Greek characteristic of the comic verse fragments. Wilde had learned how to replicate the style of authors such as Euripides or Virgil as a schoolboy in Ireland, where the “flowing beauty” of his imitations and translations were, according to his peers, “a thing not easily to be forgotten.”
In the early days of his apprenticeship Wilde attempted to “play the sedulous ape” to Pater himself. The Irishman copied many of the stylistic effects of the man he addressed as “the great master” in the review he penned in 1877 of the paintings in the Grosvenor Gallery, his first substantial published prose work. In the article, Wilde’s syntax, cadences, and rhythms are consciously Paterian: “The picture is full of magic;” he writes of a Burne-Jones, copying Pater’s rococo manner, “and the colour is truly a spirit dwelling on things and making them expressive to the spirit, for the delicate tones of grey, and green, and violet seem to convey to us the idea of languid sleep, and even the hawthorn-blossoms have lost their wonted brightness, and are more like the pale moonlight to which Shelley compared them, than the sheet of summer snow we see now in our English fields.”
Wilde proudly showed his Grosvenor Gallery article to Pater, who discovered within it clear evidence of “cultivated tastes”, as well countless “pleasant expressions”—which is hardly surprising as so many of them were borrowed from his own writings. The don must have been especially gratified by Wilde’s rhapsodic coda on “that revival of beauty which in a great part owes its birth to Mr. Ruskin, and which Mr. Swinburne, and Mr. Pater, and Mr. Symonds, and Mr. Morris and many others, are fostering and keeping alive, each in his own peculiar fashion.”
It seems likely that Wilde attempted, during his Oxford days, to imitate, and so absorb into his own writing, the styles of all the authors he names in this roll call of personal favourites. The assimilation of their styles was achieved by long and concentrated reading, and by conscious mimicry. This was certainly the Magdalen man’s method with two of the writers he mentioned in his article—John Addington Symonds and Algernon Swinburne. I will focus on Wilde’s intense engagement with this pair of English authors here.
The choice of these two particular Wildean prose models is dictated by circumstance. Wilde’s undergraduate copies of Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets and Swinburne’s Essays and Studies have survived, and the copious annotations and markings they contain allow us to recreate something of Wilde’s readerly-writerly encounter with the prose styles of these authors. The whereabouts of his volumes of Ruskin, Pater, and Morris is, on the other hand, currently unknown. Wilde’s library was sold at a public auction, during the time of his trials for “acts of gross indecency” in 1895, at the insistence of his creditors. Secured at the sale by book dealers and collectors, Wilde’s beloved books were subsequently dispersed throughout the world. Today we know only the whereabouts of 70 or so volumes from his collection of over 2000 volumes.
John Addington Symonds’s two-volume Studies of the Greek Poets (1873 & 1876) was another of Wilde’s “golden books”. He read the first volume, Studies (first series), at 20, while studying for his classics degree at Trinity. Purchasing the book in the year of its publication, he dated it “Dec 73” and autographed it “Oscar Wilde”. A Trinity contemporary would recall Wilde’s love of Studies—the book was, he remembered, perpetually in Wilde’s hands. Three years later, Wilde, now at Magdalen, purchased Studies (second series) (i.e. volume II), hot off the printing press, dating his copy “May ’76”, the month of the book’s publication, and autographing the title page “Oscar F. O’F. W. Wilde. S. M. Magdalen College, Oxford.” Wilde’s copy of the two-volumed Studies is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The extensive annotations and markings inside it testify to the strong impression the book made on the young Wilde.
Wilde’s ostentatiously advertised fondness for Symonds may have been part of the aesthetic persona he was inventing for himself, and parading before others. Symonds’s impressionistic form of aesthetic criticism was not unlike that of Pater; moreover, in the first volume of Studies, the word “aesthetic” is used on a number of occasions to characterise Greek morality, in contrast to Christian ethics. Wilde was, however, first drawn to Symonds’s book as a student of classical literature. Studies (first series) was well known to the Reverend J.P. Mahaffy, one of Wilde’s classics tutors at Trinity, and also recommended reading for Greats students at Oxford.
Studies offers an imaginative analysis of most of the surviving corpus of Greek literature; Symonds also discusses Greek historiography, mythology, philosophy, and the genius of Greek art. In the late 19th century, classical works were often regarded, in Mahaffy’s words, as “mere treasure-houses of roots and forms to be sought out by comparative grammarians”, with many classicists focusing solely on the linguistic minutiae of the texts. The historicist school of scholarship was also prominent in the period, just as it is in our own day. Its aim was to place and interpret classical works exclusively within the historical context in which they were produced.
In Studies, Symonds eschewed both philological and historicist approaches. He attempted instead to enter into a stimulating dialogue, across the centuries, with the ancients. He regarded the Greeks as essentially modern men, whose literature spoke directly to 19th-century readers. He also believed that the ancients had exercised a profound influence on contemporary culture. “Except the blind forces of nature,” he declared, “nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in its origin”—a phrase that Wilde would quote with approval. Symonds drew attention to the many points at which modern and ancient cultures touched, comparing Aristophanes to Mozart, Aeschylus to Shakespeare, Greek Myth to Medieval Romance, and Greek drama to European Opera. Wilde marked many of these parallels in his copy of Studies.
Wilde enthusiastically embraced Symonds’s approach to the ancients. At the beginning of July 1876, a couple of months after he had purchased Studies (second series), Wilde took a viva voce as part of his mods exam. When asked to discuss Aeschylus, he talked, among other things, of Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, thus employing Symonds’s specific parallels as well as his general method.
The style of Studies was as essential as its subject for the young Wilde, eager as he was to master the “difficult” art of English prose. Years later Wilde would criticise the “rhetoric and over-emphasis” of some of Symonds’s writing—when it was good, he believed, it was very, very good, but when it was bad, it was florid. During his undergraduate days, however, Wilde adored Symonds’s style, excrescences, fustian bombast, and all. With an eye to identifying Symonds’s stylistic mannerisms, he marked, in his copy of Studies, the more than usually extravagant metaphors, such as the author’s comparison of the Hermaphrodite “in whom the two sexes are hidden” to “a bitter and a sweet almond in one beautiful but barren husk.” Next to a typically poetic phrase “Calm mornings of sunshine visit us at times in early November, appearing like glimpses of departed spring,” Wilde has written the words “very charming”. Reading this, we can almost hear the young aesthete murmur the words to himself with pleasure, “turning over the leaves” of the volume, as he would say in another context, “tasting” the words, “as one tastes wine.” (Incidentally, Wilde seems to have literally, as well as metaphorically, tasted wine while he read Symonds. On page 12 of the first volume of Studies there is a marginal blemish which appears to have been made by a drop of red, or as Wilde called it, purple wine.)
As part of his bid to assimilate Symonds’s style, Wilde copied phrases from Studies into his marble-boarded notebooks, sometimes giving them a personal inflection as he transcribed. Symonds’s sentence “The Greeks had no past: ‘no hungry generations trod them down’: whereas the multitudinous associations of immense antiquity envelop all our thoughts and feelings” became, in Wilde’s rendition: “Life came naturally to the Greeks, we ‘whom the hungry generations tread down’, barely attain to the gladness that was their immediate heritage.” Here we see the fledgling author measuring his style against that of one of his masters.
Wilde was so taken with Symonds’s book that he decided to write about it. In the summer of 1876, during his long vacation in Ireland, the Magdalen man embarked on an essay concerning Studies titled “The Women of Homer”. This lengthy prose work, which is probably the first essay Wilde wrote with a non-scholarly audience in mind, survives in unfinished and fragmentary manuscript form. Wilde took his title from a chapter in Symonds’s book, in which the Homeric heroines are evoked in painterly prose. In a letter to an Oxford friend, Wilde referred to his essay as a review of Studies, and on occasion, in “The Women of Homer”, he adopted the imperious tone of a reviewer: “but Mr Symonds is perhaps right” he commented at one point; “I think Mr Symonds is open to censure”, he said at another.
Most of the piece, however, is comprised of Wilde’s own translations and renditions of the scenes from the Odyssey and the Iliad in which Homer’s heroines feature. It is likely, therefore, that the essay is Wilde’s own attempt to write a vivid introductory essay on Homer’s heroines, rather than a conventional critical appraisal of Studies. Wilde may have hoped to place the piece in a magazine aimed at general readers, or in an encyclopaedia or school textbook. Alternatively, the essay may have formed the basis of a lecture he gave (or planned to give) in Dublin. Either way, Wilde abandoned the manuscript of “The Women of Homer” some 8,500 words in and would publish no essay on the theme at this time. The manuscript is today held at the Morgan Library, and has recently been published, for the first time, both in its unfinished manuscript form and as an edited and reconstructed reading text in Oscar Wilde: The Women of Homer (eds. Thomas Wright & Don Mead).
In “The Women of Homer”, Wilde was outlandish in his praise of Symonds’s style, at one point suggesting that it was expressive and elegant enough to convey even the beauty of Helen of Troy. Symonds’s prose, Wilde gushed, evinced “a strong love of all that is really beautiful and really pathetic”, along with “all the picturesqueness and loveliness of words that we admire so much in Mr Ruskin and Mr Pater.” Picturesqueness was, in Wilde’s view, the defining quality of Symonds’s style; he would later employ that epithet again in the newspaper reviews he penned of the books Symonds published in the 1880s.
Throughout “The Women of Homer” Wilde played the sedulous ape to Symonds. His general approach to Homer’s heroines is identical to that of Studies—the Magdalen man produced a form of impressionistic or aesthetic criticism in which Homeric scenes were summarised and vividly evoked through paraphrase and translation, rather than dissected analytically. The young Magdalen man’s style, like that of Symonds or Pater, was subjective and richly coloured by enthusiasm and emotion.
Wilde also directly echoed Symonds in many specific instances. “And so it is”, he wrote, “with consummate art that Homer has drawn [Nausicaa] following the cunning Circe and the enchantress Calypso. When we come face to face with Nausicaa it is like leaving a hot conservatory for the fresh spring air, or a crowded gaslit room for the soft breezes and silver glories of the night.’” These lines mimicked Symonds’s own comments on Nausicaa: “Odysseus,” he says, “passes straight from the solitary island of Ogygia, … into the company of this real woman. It is like coming from a land of dreams into a dewy garden when the sun has risen.”
Wilde audaciously attempted, on occasion, to “out-Symonds Symonds” for richness of word music and poetic extravagance. “The scene”, wrote Wilde of Andromache’s final parting from Hector, “is as the white blossom of an almond tree that our hands can not reach, though its perfume is brought to us by the wind; it is an eternal flower on the trees of sorrow, bright with the dews of many tears.” Reading these lines out of context, it would be impossible to say whether they came from the pen of Symonds or Wilde.
Wilde’s imitations are hardly a form of plagiarism, but there are occasions in “The Women of Homer” where he borrowed Symonds’s ideas, in the process of mimicking his style—something that could be classed as a species of literary theft. Wilde’s phrase, “Yet Helen did not all die. Marlowe made Faustus bring her from the dead to be his paramour”, is clearly derived from Symonds’s remark that “the Romance of Helen of Troy…blazed forth again in the pregnant myth of Faustus. The final achievement of Faust’s magic was to evoke Helen from the dead and hold her his paramour”. In this case, it could be argued that stylistic imitation has become, almost imperceptibly, the unacknowledged appropriation of an idea.
“The Women of Homer” was an ambitious experiment in style for a young Oxonian to have undertaken. Having marked his favourite Symonds phrases in his copy of Studies, and having transferred some of them into his notebooks, Wilde tried his hand at producing variations on the style of one of his masters. The result is uneven, with Wilde sometimes reproducing the worst excesses of his model and often lapsing into a “Wardour Street English” that is embarrassingly quaint; yet as an attempt to master Symonds’s style, the exercise was a resounding success.
A year after the apprentice author wrestled with Symonds’s style, in the margins of his copy of Studies, in his notebooks, and in the manuscript leaves of “The Women of Homer”, Wilde picked up Algernon Swinburne’s Essays and Studies (second edition, London, 1876). His copy, which is autographed “Oscar Wilde / Magdalen College. / July. 1877”, has recently come to light.
Wilde’s devotion and indebtedness to what he called the “very perfect and very poisonous” poetry of Swinburne is well known. At Magdalen the English spokesman of aestheticism was the Irishman’s “only poet”. Wilde often read the “marvellous music-maker” in his college rooms, mischievously describing himself, in one Oxford letter, as lying “in bed with Swinburne (a copy of)”. Wilde declared that he would rather have written Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads (first series, 1866) than any other book. According to some critics, he came perilously close to doing so in his own volumes of poetry, which were so saturated with Swinburnian echoes that they would be uncharitably dismissed as “Swinburne and water”.
Much less is known about the influence of Swinburne’s prose style on Wilde, though the markings in Wilde’s copy of Essays and Studies suggest that it was profound. Swinburne’s volume is an anthology of 11 lengthy critical essays, nine of which were originally written for the distinguished monthly the Fortnightly Review, and two as introductions to volumes of Byron’s and Coleridge’s poetry. Along with his appraisals of those two authors, Swinburne surveys the works of Hugo (in two separate articles), Rossetti, Morris, Arnold, Shelley, and John Ford. The collection ends with the two art essays: “Notes on Designs [i.e. drawings] of the Old Masters at Florence” and “Notes on Some Pictures of 1868”.
Swinburne served up an intimate and idiosyncratic brand of aesthetic criticism. Like Symonds and Pater, he offered vivid evocations of works of art rather than detached scholarly analysis; he was invariably more interested in the impression they made upon him than in their intrinsic qualities or the facts concerning their history. In mimicking this style of writing, Wilde was consciously aligning himself with the aesthetic movement and moving away from the academic style required of him as a Greats student, or indeed as an aspiring don. At Magdalen, Wilde was, as we know, uncertain as to which professional route he would follow—that of an Oxford academic or that of a popular writer in London; the aesthetic style of Pater, Symonds, and Swinburne worked on him like a siren song, luring him toward the latter path.
Swiunburne’s essays were also aesthetic in the more obvious sense that they zealously expounded the credo of aestheticism. The young Wilde absorbed wholesale many of Swinburne’s aesthetic pronouncements, marking them in his copy of Essays and Studies and rehearsing them in his later writings. On page 47 of Wilde’s copy there is a tick next to the phrase: “For art is very life itself, and knows nothing of death; she is absolute truth and takes no care of fact; she sees that Achilles and Ulysses are even now more actual by far than Wellington and Talleyrand; not merely more noble and interesting as types and figures, but more positive and real …” In “The English Renaissance of Art”, the first talk Wilde would give during his 1882 lecture tour of America, where he was billed as the “spokesman of Aestheticism”, these lines are repeated almost verbatim: “For art is very life itself and knows nothing of death;” Wilde remarks, “she is absolute truth and takes no care of fact; she sees (as I remember Mr Swinburne insisting on at dinner) that Achilles is even now more actual and real than Wellington, not merely more noble and interesting as a type but more positive and real”. (It is rather amusing that Wilde claimed to have heard Swinburne utter these words at dinner. As the pair are said to have only ever attended one dinner party together, and on that occasion, apparently spoke only briefly. Wilde must have made the anecdote up in a bid to impress his audience.)
In his essay on Arnold, Swinburne declares that there are two qualities of an artistic production that are bound to please the elect and annoy the many—”perfection of the work, and personality in the workman”. Wilde echoed this artistic formula on numerous occasions, the first occasion being in his 1882 essay “L’Envoi”, where he writes: “Whatever work we have in the Nineteenth Century must rest on the two poles of personality and perfection”. Wilde marked another of Swinburne’s famous aesthetic tenets in his copy of Essays and Studies: “The essence of an artist is that he should be articulate”. Once again, Wilde recycled this in “The English Renaissance”, where he remarked: “‘The artist’, as Mr. Swinburne says, ‘must be perfectly articulate.’”
Wilde’s markings suggest that he paid as much attention to the style of Essays and Studies as he did to its substance. He evidently read with the aim of divining and absorbing the secret of Swinburne’s manner, just as he had done in the case of Symonds’s Studies. In a letter written to a friend in 1877, the penultimate year of his Greats course, Wilde mulled over the possibility of taking up art criticism as a career. We might, in consequence, reasonably expect him to have paid especial attention to the two art essays included in Essays and Studies. In particular, we might assume that he would have been drawn to Swinburne’s lush evocations of pictures, as they are precisely the sort of impressionistic prose set pieces out of which Wilde built his own 1877 essay on the paintings in the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition.
The following description of a drawing of Salome by Andrea del Sarto is representative of Swinburne’s style: “Salome dances before Herod, an incarnate figure of music, grave and graceful, light and glad, the song of a bird made flesh, with perfect poise of her sweet slight body from maiden face to melodious feet; no tyrannous or treacherous goddess of deadly beauty, but a simple virgin, with the cold charm of girlhood and the mobile charm of childhood; as indifferent and innocent when she stands before Herodias and when she receives the severed head of John with her slender and steady hands; a pure bright animal, knowing nothing of man, and of life nothing but instinct and motion.”
This long and luxuriant sentence, in its elegant use of assonance and antithesis, and in its addiction to alliteration, as well as in its measured cadence, is so close to Wilde’s later prose that it might be mistaken for it. Yet neither this phrase, nor the countless other vivid lines that illuminate Swinburne’s art criticism, have been marked in Wilde’s copy of Essays and Studies. As he read, Wilde was evidently able to saturate himself in the music of Swinburne’s style without needing to mark specific passages.
Instead of underlining Swinburne’s purple passages, Wilde chose to place vertical lines throughout his copy of Essays and Studies, next to the author’s aphorisms and paradoxes. He marked Swinburne’s comment, apropos of Arnold, that “Some men are right without being reasonable, he is reasonable without being right”. A tick is also visible next to the remark that Byron had “much to fight against; and three impediments hung about him at starting, the least of which would have weighed down a less strong man: youth, and genius, and an ancient name.” Swinburne has never been regarded as an influence on Wilde the epigrammatist, but these markings strongly suggest that possibility.
The young Oxonian seems to have especially relished Swinburne’s maxims when they were illustrated with evocative images and metaphors. Swinburne’s phrase “Nothing that leaves us depressed is a true work of art. We must have light though it be lightning, and air though it be storm” has been marked, as has the following comment on the organic quality of Coleridge’s style: “Thus it has grown: not thus it has been carved”. Vivid aphoristic phrases such as these famously appear throughout Wilde’s later writings, and it is seems possible that Swinburne’s prose helped inspire this motif of his mature style.
Wilde was the most fastidious of readers (legend has it that he refused to read on whenever he came across the ugly word “magenta” in a book), so it is hardly surprising that he appears to have been offended (or perhaps amused) by the occasional excess and coarseness of Swinburne’s style. In his essay on Byron, Swinburne remarks that while “Coleridge and Keats used nature mainly as a stimulant or a sedative; Wordsworth [used it] as a vegetable fit to shred into his pot and pare down like the outer leaves of a lettuce for didactic and culinary purposes.” In the margin next to this phrase, Wilde has made two bold vertical lines and scribbled a large exclamation mark—which we may take to indicate distaste or amusement, or perhaps a combination of both.
Just as he had done while reading Symonds’s Studies, Wilde transcribed some lines from Essays and Studies into one of his undergraduate commonplace books. One entry there, titled “Beauty”, begins:
‘Rien n’est vrai que le beau’ [nothing is true except the beautiful]. Beauty may be strange, quaint, terrible, she may play with pain as with pleasure, handle a horror till she leaves it a delight. Art is one though the service of art is diverse. Beauty also may become incarnate in a myriad of diverse forms but the worship of beauty is simple and absolute.
Wilde was quoting from the penultimate and the ultimate pages of Essays and Studies. Swinburne had written “Rien n’est vrai que le beau [an Aesthetic slogan originally coined by Alfred de Musset]…Beauty may be strange, quaint, terrible, may play with pain as with pleasure, handle a horror till she leave it a delight.” Wilde copied these lines out with only one or two minor alterations (he added the word “she”, and wrote “leaves” instead of “leave”); his eye then skipped a few lines in Essays and Studies until it alighted on the phrase: “The worship of beauty, though beauty be itself transformed and incarnate in shapes diverse without end, must be simple and absolute”. This time Wilde was not content to simply transcribe the lines; rather he transformed them: “Beauty also may become incarnate in a myriad of diverse forms but the worship of beauty is simple and absolute.” Here we see the apprentice writer streamlining his source, rendering Swinburne’s phrase more lucid and memorable. The example, once again, evidences the extent of Wilde’s ambition as well as his skill.
So far as we know, Wilde never wrote an essay on (or in imitation of) Algernon Swinburne during his time at Magdalen. Nevertheless, the evidence of the markings in his copy of Essays and Studies, and in his notebooks, suggest Swinburne’s pervasive influence on the young author, an influence that would bear rich fruit in Wilde’s later critical writings.
Wilde’s undergraduate encounters with Symonds and Swinburne at Magdalen were not only fruitful in the short term; they may also have served as a paradigm for his future practice as an author, convincing him (if he needed convincing) that imitation was the best way to proceed. Throughout his career, before embarking on a new work, Wilde always selected a literary model (or models) to follow. He used Hans Christian Anderson’s celebrated tales as exemplars for his own fairy stories; the plays of the “Belgian Shakespeare”, Maurice Maeterlinck, provided the prototype for his French-language drama Salome. In the course of writing his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde imitated exponents of countless genres such as the Gothic novel (i.e. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and dandy literature (i.e. Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey), as well as several masters of different varieties of popular Victorian fiction such as the “magic picture novel” and the “mesmeric novel”.
Wilde would speak openly about his derivative method of composition. He declared that imitation, and admiration, were “the portal to all great things” in literature, and identified the 18th-century English poet Thomas Chatterton as his model of authorship. Chatterton composed, in the 1760s, pastiches, or “forgeries”, of medieval poetry, passing them off as the original work of the 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley. The poet had, as Wilde explained in his 1886 lecture on Chatterton, also effortlessly absorbed the language of his contemporaries: scribbling off, by the yard, “polished lines like Pope, satire like Churchill…[and emotive verse like] Gray, Collins, Macpherson”.
Wilde characterised Chatterton, the marvellous boy of English literature, as an author “of the type of Shakespeare and Homer: a dramatist [who] claimed for the artist freedom of mood.” The poet’s “forgeries” and imitations were motivated by “the desire for artistic self-effacement” rather than by creative sterility or kleptomania; to accuse him of literary petty larceny would, Wilde argued, be to confuse an aesthetical with an ethical question. The “forgeries” were inspired too, by the delight Chatterton took in playing with the poetic postures and styles of his literary precursors—a form of literary dressing up Wilde himself relished.
Imitation, Wilde would claim, had nothing to do with plagiarism or lack of originality, for no one could ever be truly original. Every writer was “the child of someone else”, insofar as he copied, consciously or otherwise, his predecessors. True originality, therefore, could, “be found rather in the use made of a model than in the rejection of all models”; and great poets were those capable of drawing new music from reeds that had been “touched by other lips”.
Inevitably, Wilde’s method would leave him open to the charges of plagiarism, an accusation that dogged him throughout his career. The line between mimicry and theft is an extremely fine one, and Wilde was not always careful about crossing it. Once again, he was perfectly candid about his peccadilloes: “It is only the unimaginative who ever invents;” he would say, “the true artist is known by what he annexes, and he annexes everything”. “Of course I plagiarise”, he confessed to a friend, “it is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read Flaubert’s Tentation de St Antoine without signing my name at the end of it…All the Best Hundred Books bear my signature in this manner”.
With characteristic ingenuity Wilde would come up with a definition of plagiarism that would effectively absolve himself of the charge. Plagiarism, he declared, only ever really existed where the imitator failed to surpass his source in brilliance: “When I see a monstrous tulip with four wonderful petals in someone else’s garden”, he explained, “I am impelled to grow a monstrous tulip with five wonderful petals, but that is no reason why someone should grow a tulip with only three petals.”
In the summer of 1878 Wilde achieved a first in his finals examination, thereby becoming one of only a handful of Magdalen men to achieve a “double first” in Greats in the entire 19th century. Despite his spectacular success in schools, however, he decided not to embrace the academic life. Fear of becoming “a dried up Oxford don” weighed heavily with him, as did his inordinate ambition to become “famous, and if not famous, notorious”. The development of a lush and epigrammatic aesthetic prose style—his newly-acquired skill in playing music on a “reed” that had been “touched” by the lips of Pater, Symonds, and Swinburne—was also a factor, for it was a manner that could serve him well as a lecturer and as a writer in the popular press. Sometime in 1879 or 1880, Wilde left Oxford for London, comparing the move to leaving “Parnassus for Piccadilly”.
Wilde carried with him to the English capital his impressive academic qualifications, along with numerous copies of his recently published poem “Ravenna” (with which he had carried off Oxford’s Newdigate poetry prize in 1878) and a trunk full of the manuscript leaves of countless other verses he had scribbled at Magdalen. And it was as a classicist and as a poet that he first attempted to make a name for himself in the English capital.
It would, however, be as a prose author that Wilde ultimately established his reputation. In 1882 he declared his genius in America, impressing large audiences with lectures on art in which he rehearsed the aesthetic credo of Pater, Symonds, and Swinburne (among others) and offered an elegant pastiche of their style. At the end of the 1880s he penned the platonic critical dialogues that would be published in Intentions (1891) as “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”, in which he reprised, once again, the aesthetic style of his youthful models, mixing it this time with a wit and an intellectual range that were entirely his own. In 1890 the first version of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was issued in a magazine to critical consternation and outrage, which ensured that it would be a succès de scandale.
Wilde eventually passed from prose to drama (before passing on from drama to prison), achieving his greatest triumph, in 1895, with the enormously popular plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. Yet it was in prose that he first made his mark. The exercises in style he completed during his years at Magdalen, using authors such as Symonds and Swinburne as his models, consequently assume a great significance, and can be regarded as among the most productive seeds Wilde planted at Oxford. Those seeds would later blossom into some of the most strangely shaped and curiously coloured hothouse flowers of 19th-century literature.
Thomas Wright is the author of Oscar’s Books: A journey around the library of Oscar Wilde (Vintage, 2009) and of Death in Genoa, an audio drama about Wilde, which can be downloaded, free of charge, from The Independent.
I would like to thank the Wilde scholar Tracey Carroll (Drew University, New Jersey) for her extremely helpful comments on an early draft of this article, and Don Mead, chairman of The Oscar Wilde Society (www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk), for his excellent advice. I would like to thank the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York for access to manuscript material, and Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, for his support and for permission to quote from material still in copyright.