Oscar Wilde

June 9, 2006


Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde 
Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer and Freemason
One of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London
Sometimes called ‘the apostle of beauty’
Among the last of the Victorians: he posed as an exponent of new ideas but was also of an old school of thought
Major celebrity of his day, known for his barbed and clever wit
Suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned after being convicted for gross indecency (homosexual acts)
Known for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements
Gravestone is covered in lipstick marks


Tread lightly, she is near / Under the snow, / Speak gently, she can hear / The daisies grow.
All her bright golden hair / Tarnished with rust, / She that was young and fair / Fallen to dust.
Lily-like, white as snow, / She hardly knew / She was a woman, so / Sweetly she grew.
Coffin-board, heavy stone, / Lie on her breast; / I vex my heart alone, / She is at rest.
Peace, peace; she cannot hear / Lyre or sonnet; / All my life’s buried here, / Heap earth upon it.

-Requiescat (in whole)

Written after the death of Wilde’s younger sister

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

A portrait made of the eponymous Dorian Gray is marred because of his many sins, becoming old and disfigured, while he himself remains young and perfect
Themes of aestheticism and the morality of art, homosexuality, beauty, youth, Hedonism, Romanticism/Realism


“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.”

“All art is quite useless.”

“‘Harry,’ said Basil Hallward, looking him straight in the face, ‘every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.  The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.  It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.  The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.'”

“‘I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling , expression to every thought, reality to every dream- I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal- to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.  But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives.  We are punished for our refusals.  Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us.  the body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification.  Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret.  The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.  Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.'”

“‘…You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray.  Don’t frown.  You have.  And Beauty is a form of Genius- is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation…To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders.  It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.  The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible…'”

“Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed.  The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair.  The life that was to make his soul would mar his body.  He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth.”

“‘How said it is!’ murmured Dorian Gray, with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait.  ‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.  But this picture will remain always young.  It will never be older than this particular day of June…. If it were only the other way!  If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that-for that- I would give everything!  Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!  I would give my soul for that!'”

“‘She behaves as if she was beautiful.  Most American women do.  It is the secret of their charm.'”

“‘Never marry at all, Dorian.  Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.'”

“‘When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others.  That is what the world calls a romance.'”

“‘A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures.  But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating.  The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look.  The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible.  He lives the poetry that he cannot write.  The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.'”

“The expression looked different.  One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth.  It was certainly strange… There were no signs of any change when he looked into the actual painting, and yet there was no doubt that the whole expression had altered.”

“But the picture?  What was he to say of that?  It held the secret of his life, and told his story.  It had taught him to love his own beauty.  Would it teach him to loathe his own soul?  Would he ever look at it again?”

“There is a luxury in self-reproach.  When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has a right to blame us.  It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”

“‘So I have murdered Sibyl Vane,’ said Dorian Gray, half to himself-‘murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife.  Yet the roses are not less lovely for all that.  The birds sing just as happily in my garden.  And tonight I am to dine with you, and then go on to the Opera, and sup somewhere, I suppose, afterwards.  How extraordinarily dramatic life is!'”

“‘The girl never really lived, and so she has never really died…She was less real than they are.'”

“Yes: there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life, and to save it from that harsh, uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival.  It was to have its service of the intellect, certainly; yet, it was never to accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience.  Its aim, indeed, was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be.  Of the asceticism that deadens the senses, as of the vulgar profligacy that dulls them, it was to know nothing.  But it was to teach man to concentrate himself upon the moments of a life that its itself but a moment.”

“…no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself.”

“On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself, but filled, at other times with the pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin, and smiling, with secret pleasure, at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own.”

“Society, civilized society at least, is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating.  It feels instinctively that manners are of more importance than morals…”

“For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art.  Form is absolutely essential to it.  It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us.  Is insincerity such a terrible thing?  I think not.  It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”

“To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bor within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.”

“Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book.”

“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face.  It cannot be concealed.  People talk sometimes of secret vices.  There are no such things.  If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.”

“The dead man was still sitting there, too, and in the sunlight now.  How horrible that was!  Such hideous thins were for the darkness, not the day.”

“Time stopped for him.  Yes: that blind, slow-breathing thing crawled no more, and horrible thoughts, Time being dead, raced nimbly on in front, and dragged a hideous future from its grave, and showed it to him.  He stared at it.  Its very horror made him stone.”

“‘Don’t speak about those days, Dorian: they are dead.’
‘The dead linger sometimes.  The man upstairs will not go away.'”

“Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real, became clear to him now for that very reason.  Ugliness was the one reality.  The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song.  They were what he needed for forgetfulness.”

“Each man lived his own life, and paid his own price for living it.  The only pity was one had to pay so often for a single fault.  One had to pay over and over again, indeed.  In her dealings with man Destiny never closed her accounts.”

“…we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things.  Names are everything.  I never quarrel with actions.  My one quarrel is with words.  That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature.”

“‘Life has been your art.  You have set yourself to music.  Your days are your sonnets.'”

“‘The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.'”

“Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride ad passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth!  All his failure had been due to that.  Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure, swift penalty along with it.  There was purification in punishment.  Not ‘Forgive us our sins,’ but ‘Smite us for our iniquities,’ should be the prayer of man to a most just God.”

“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for.  But for those two things, his life might have been free from stain.  His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery.  What was youth at best?  A green, and unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts.”

“When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a plendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty.  Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart.  He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.  It was not till they examined the rings that they recognized who it was.”

The Critic as Artist (1890/1891)

Argues that criticism is a creation within a creation: criticism is just as respectable of an art as the object it is interpreting
Set up as a conversation between Gilbert and Ernest 


Gilbert: …When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet.

Gilbert:…Those who live in marble or on painted panel know of life but a single exquisite instant, eternal indeed in its beauty, but limited to one note of passion or one mood of calm. Those whom the poet makes live have their myriad emotions of joy and terror, of courage and despair, of pleasure and of suffering.

The statue is concentrated to one moment of perfection. The image stained upon the canvas possesses no spiritual element of growth or change. If they know nothing of death, it is because they know little of life, for the secrets of life and death belong to those, and those only, whom the sequence of time affects, and who possess not merely the present but the future, and can rise or fall from a past of glory or of shame. Movement, that problem of the visible arts, can be truly realized by Literature alone. It is Literature that shows us the body in its swiftness and the soul in its unrest.

Gilbert: But, surely, Criticism is itself an art. And just as artistic creation implies the working of the critical faculty, and, indeed, without it cannot be said to exist at all, so Criticism is really creative in the highest sense of the word. Criticism is, in fact, both creative and independent.

Gilbert: …Dullness is always an irresistible temptation for brilliancy, and stupidity is the permanent Bestia Trionfans that calls wisdom from its cave. To an artist so creative as the critic, hat does subject matter signify? No more and no less than it does to the novelist and the painter. Like them, he can find his motives everywhere. Treatment is the test. There is nothing that has not in it suggestion or challenge.

Gilbert:…Indeed, I would call criticism a creation within a creation.

Nay, more, I would say that the highest Criticism, being the purest form of personal impression, is in its way more creative than creation, as it has least reference to any standard external to itself, and is, in fact, its own reason for existing, and as the Greeks would put it, in itself, and to itself, an end.

Gilbert: …For the highest Criticism deals with art not as expressive but as impressive purely.

Gilbert: …Who cares whether Mr. Rsukin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery-colored in its noble eloquence, so rich in its elaborate symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best, in subtle choice word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those wonderful sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s Gallery; greater indeed, one is apt to think at times, not merely because its equal beauty is more enduring, but on account of the fuller variety of its appeal, soul speaking to soul in those long-candenced lines, not through form and colour alone, though through these, indeed, completely and without loss, but with intellectual and emotional utterance, with lofty passion and with loftier thought, with imaginative insight, and with poetic aim; greater, I always think, even as Literature is the greater art.

And so the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing, and the music of the mystical prose is as sweet in our ears as was that flute-player’s music that lent to the lips of La Gioconda those subtle and poisonous curves. Do you ask me what Leonardo would have said had any one told him of this picture that ‘all the thoughts and experience of the world had etched and moulded therein that which they had of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias?’ He would probably have answered that he contemplated none of these things, but had concerned himself simply with certain arrangement of lines and masses, and with new and curious colour-harmonies of blue and green. And i is for this very reason that the criticism which I have quoted is criticism of the highest kind. It treats the work of art simply as a starting point for a new creation. It does not confine itself – let us at least suppose so for the moment – to discovering the real intention of the artist and accepting that as final. And in this it is right, for the meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it. Nay, it is rather the beholder who lends to the beautiful created thing its myraid meanings, and akes it marvelous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive.

Beauty has as many meanings as man has moods. Beauty is the symbol of symbols. Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing. When it shows us itself, it shows us the whole fiery-coloured world.

Gilbert: …For a painter is limited, not to what he sees in nature, but to what upon canvas may be seen.

For, when the ideal is realized, it is robbed of its wonder and its mystery, and becomes simply a new starting point for an ideal that is other than itself.

Gilbert: …But I see it is time for supper. After we have discussed some Chambertin and a few ortolans, we will pass on to the question of the critic considered in the light of the interpreter.
Ernest: Ah! you admit, then, that the critic may occasionally be allowed to see the object as in itself it really is.
Gilbert: I am not quite sure. Perhaps I may admit it after supper. There is a subtle influence in supper.


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