“The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way…”
“…whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs”
The quotes belong to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), a writer known mostly for his Faustian and gothic tale, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a handful of plays, and for his razor wit, and oversized personality, but he should also be remembered as poet and as an activist.
It is LGBT History Month and reading Cara Santa Maria’s Huffington article on Alan Turing this morning spurred me to write about another gay icon: Oscar Wilde. Whether Apple’s symbolic apple has any connection to Turing’s apple-laced suicide or not does not matter. Turing was gay and he was driven to a grisly end because he was gay. The article’s theme about the cost of intolerance is still relevant. While Gordon Brown did apologize in 2009 for what England did to Alan Turing, the mathematician’s premature death is a consequential loss. Who knows where computers would be today had he lived?
Take any sentence that Wilde wrote in Dorian or elsewhere and hear the poetry. Do you hear the almost Keatsian “the sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way” or visualize the heroic and ungainly flight of a bumblebee?
The second quote from Dorian Gray is a nod to Walter Pater’s “gem-like flame,” which Louis Auchincloss would later lift for his 1953 short story, The Gemlike Flame. The story set in fin-de-siècle London would also allude to an unmentionable book, a sly allusion to Joris-Karl Huysman’s decadent character Jean Des Esseintes in À rebours, translated into English as Against the Grain (1884). Is Dorian Gray an indictment of suffocating Victorian morality? A chair did not have legs; it had “limbs.”
Is the story a discussion piece for aestheticism? Walter Pater, a tutor of Wilde’s (and of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s, too), is one of the influences of the “Art for Art’s Sake” movement. The Movement would, in turn, encourage Symbolist and Decadent literature. The poetry of Mallarmé is considered Symbolist; Huysman’s prose, an example of “decadence.” The former is abstract and esoteric, escaping final meaning, while the latter lapses into sensuality and ennui. The opening paragraphs of Dorian Gray are all about decadent ennui while the infamous portrait is itself symbolic and abstract. Is Dorian Gray a cautionary fable about artistic ambition and sensual excess?
Wilde’s life was extraordinary. He was a successful Irish writer, which, I think, has been overlooked since Anglo attitudes toward their Hibernian cousins were not so enlightened. Race theory, Darwinism, and phrenology were in their heyday. Punch Magazine of the day “portrayed the Irish as having bestial, ape-like or demonic features.” The other popular writer in Wilde’s day was fellow Irishman, Bram Stoker. Wilde himself came from an educated family. He was fluent in French and German. He had studied classical language and literature at Trinity. He would later study Greek at Magdalen College at Oxford. Wilde’s wit was legendary and he probably does qualify as the first literary celebrity. It was at the height of his success, around the time of his play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), when everything went downhill for Wilde.
An aside: there are, in my estimation, neglected aspects of Wilde’s personal life, which I think are worth acknowledging and commemorating. The late Richard Ellmann (and wonderful Yeats commentator produced the definitive Wilde biography. Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and the couple had two sons. While everyone remembers Wilde as “homosexual” [and I don’t know whether marriage and children qualify him as “bisexual”] he did work hard to support his two sons despite the public persona. They were not neglected. When the “scandal” broke out, Constance divorced him and, as a result of the legal proceedings, Wilde was barred from ever seeing his sons. Fortunately for Wilde, he had not lived to see one of his sons killed in the First World War. Oscar’s grandson offers an assessment of his famous grandfather.
Three trials later — every biographical entry mentions how the two-year sentence of hard labor had broken Wilde’s health. Upon release, he was a social pariah and died destitute in Paris in a room with horrid drapes. Few people, I assume, know that Wilde had signed George Bernard Shaw’s petition protesting the injustice in jailing the anarchists supposedly responsible for the Haymarket massacre in Chicago in 1886. Long since the botched executions of the supposed perpetrators, reasonable evidence has been uncovered to point to the Pinkertons as having had a hand in the bombings. The cause célèbre was the Sacco-Vanzetti trial before there was Sacco and Vanzetti. Oscar Wilde was also an ardent Irish nationalist and wrote essays defending Charles Parnell when Parnell was (falsely) accused of murder. Parnell’s innocence was later vindicated.
Wilde the writer was, however, found guilty of “gross indecency.” Egged on by his lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Wilde sued Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for libel, and lost. He in turn was accused of, tried and convicted of sodomy. The rancor between Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry is well documented. Where Alfred Douglas was an insufferable ingrate, his father was litigious, vulgar and vindictive; and in an irony not lost upon Wilde, illiterate – at least, seemingly so for the calling card he had left Wilde: “For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite.”
Beside the idea that Wilde’s trial was ultimately Kafkaesque in outcome, the real horror was that The Picture of Dorian Gray was cited as evidence for the prosecution. Wilde had his own concerns that Dorian was too moral, but the critics found it immoral. The preface to the 1891 edition, the content of which consisted of well-turned aphorisms, Wilde had intended as his defense of “Art for Art’s Sake.” Instead of helping him, though, it was used against him. Art murders the Artist. Long before the legal concept and accountability of hate crimes and speech, The Picture of Dorian Gray posed the question about the morality of art.
Wilde had ended his preface with “All art is quite useless.”