I suspect that I am not the only lover of literature who, were I known as the author of the definitive biographies of Joyce and Yeats, might be content to leave it there. But Richard Ellmann, literary critic and biographer extraordinaire, was determined to complete his triptych of Irish geniuses, and on his deathbed produced what is still regarded as the seminal work on Oscar Wilde.
Ellmann briskly recapitulates the familiar tale of a rapid rise to fame. Ever the precocious student, Wilde quickly became a celebrity at Oxford, predicting that, “I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other, I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious.”
Stephen Fry, who has himself always been fascinated by Wilde, once said that, from a very early age, he knew that he wanted, almost needed, to be famous. A similar streak of ambition was clearly present in Wilde; as one of his characters reminds us, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.
Bewitched by Ruskin and Pater, it was not long before he became the face of the new movement of aestheticism. He went onto stardom in the literary worlds of London and Paris, known as a wit, a conversationalist and a bon vivant. A well-advertised and relatively successful tour of the United States lecture circuit made the name and fame of Wilde transatlantic. Reading an account of these early years, it is surprising how inevitable it all seems. But it took a while for the work to catch up to his celebrity; his reputation preceded his art.
T.S. Eliot once asked Stephen Spender what he wanted to do with his life. “Be a poet” was Spender’s reply, at which Eliot balked, “I can understand you wanting to write poems, but I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘being a poet’.” There was a definite suspicion that Wilde spent more time “being a poet” than producing anything worth reading; in modern parlance, he was seen as being ‘famous for being famous’.
Fortunately, his annus mirabilis redeemed him. 1891 saw him publish the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and write his first successful plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan and Salome. He also wrote his still-famous political essay, ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’.[video:https://youtu.be/63dUYNXLqJ8]
Ellmann peppers the book with moments in Wilde’s life that eerily foreshadow the fall from grace that was even more vertiginous than the rise. As so often, the catalyst was love, of the kind that “dare not speak its name”; love for the handsome Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie”. The facts are well-known and Ellmann slowly and pityingly leads us through the story of Wilde’s battle with cant; the conflict with the Marquess of Queensbury, Bosie’s prejudiced brute of a father, followed by three trials in which Wilde’s role quickly shifted from the accuser, to the accused, to the convict.
The facts of the life are already well-trodden, and it is therefore in the art of literary criticism that Ellmann exceeds himself. It is carefully shown that Wilde’s philosophy of life and art was much more expansive and unpredictable than a simple reverence for abstract beauty. The tension between the sacred and the profane was ever-present, and his work was, to use an ugly phrase, much more morally engaged than usually thought.
Ultimately, Wilde lived behind a mask. His conception of art included the deliberate cultivation of a beautiful personality. As he said himself, he had put all his genius into his life. This life, and this carefully crafted personality, single-handedly exposed the follies and hypocrisies of conventional Victorian morality. In the end, his greatest work of art was himself.