One thing that I found particularly interesting about The Happy Prince stories was their similarity to fairy tales. This literary form seemed out of character for Wilde, whose works tend to cater to an educated and upper-class audience. Many of his poems, essays, and stories have the pre-requisite of being “in the know,” referencing other decadent works and making allusions to texts with which the average person would not be familiar. Additionally, some of his work comes off as classist. He treats the poor as predisposed to a certain lifestyle and favors the educated and bored wealthy as the main subjects of his work.
The Happy Prince tales took on a completely different mode of communication. They were generally straightforward stories that were easy to understand. They featured talking animals, mythical creatures, and even anthropomorphic rockets. Most seemed to contain a moral. Some even seemed to criticize the wealthy and upper class, like The Remarkable Rocket, The Happy Prince, and The Devoted Friend.
While reading these stories, I wondered why Wilde would choose to write in this form. One reason could be that he was reveling in contradiction. Wilde eschews consistency for fear of becoming boring and deliberately runs from the familiar in The Happy Prince tales. The morals he presents throughout the story may be true beliefs as much as his seemingly contrasting beliefs in other stories. His use of a simple form may be an appeal to the uneducated as he makes his work more accessible. This great contrast in his work could have been appealing to Wilde’s aesthetic of difference and contradiction.
On the other hand, the stories may mean nothing at all. Wilde might be following a different belief and creating art for art’s sake, in which case the fairytales are merely beautiful. According to Wilde, art for art’s sake should lack meaning completely, voiding the morals throughout the collection of stories.
Lastly, the stories may have been a personal challenge for Wilde, who stressed the importance of letting the genius shine by constraining them within a form. Wilde may have been challenging himself to work within the fairytale form to produce greater beauty and genius. Whatever his motive, The Happy Prince stories were an interesting break from Wilde’s usual style and revealed a range of creativity.
What interested me the most about the readings for this week was what can be inferred about the relationship between some of the poets and the Decadence movement. Though many of these same artists would detest the very idea that the artist can be found in their art, I do not think it can be denied that some of the poetry we read this week was deeply personal.
This is seen perhaps most clearly in Lord Alfred Douglas’ works, as his works seem to often reflect his personal feelings about his own sexuality, and the Decadence movement as a whole. The first poem of his we read, “Apologia,” seems to me to be a representation of Douglas’ inner conflict between his sexuality and religion, as he seems to understand that they are not compatible, though he longs to indulge both. The closing lines of “Two Loves” talk of a True Love which, in its own words is “the love that dare not speak its name.” These closing lines and the poem as a whole seem to reflect how difficult it is for Douglas to keep his true feelings hidden from the world, and to not feel shame for indulging in a love that the rest of society says is morally wrong. Both of these themes are prevalent in many of Wilde’s works as well, and it is quite telling how influential they both were to each other.
A complicated relationship to the Decadence movement can be seen in Lady Alfred Douglas’ works, as it seems to me that her relationship to the movement is one of both appreciation and criticism. In her first selection, “Peacocks: A Mood” she characterizes the decadents of her age as the titular bird, clearly in appreciation of their aesthetic qualities. However, though she recognizes the peacocks as “gorgeous,” she criticizes them because “They trample the pale flowers, and their shrill cry/Troubles the garden’s bright tranquility.” It seems that the poem is recognizing the beauty that can be found in the art of the Decadence movement, but also seems to warn that such a focus on art for arts sake can ultimately destroy the artistic landscape of the time.
What I found most interesting about “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” was the references to Plato’s Symposium. It’s a collection of speeches about the nature of Eros, the god of love and desire, and a lot of it focuses on pederasty—the relationship between an older man and a young man. The older man was meant to act as a mentor for the young man and help him develop as a person, but there was also a sexual aspect to this relationship. It was fairly common practice among the elite of Ancient Greece.
In my copy of the Symposium, it mentions that when the Symposium was studied in the past, the sexual aspect of the relationship was ignored, and it was just interpreted as a mentor and mentee relationship between men. When I read the first part “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” I thought that the relationship between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes was meant to be seen as romantic. However, on pages 324 and 325 Wilde references the Symposium and says that the Platonic conception of love is “nothing if not spiritual” and is removed from “gross bodily appetite.” This leads me to believe that Wilde included the references to the Symposium as somewhat of a defense against critics who might interpret the relationship between Shakespeare and Willie Hughes as indecent. Wilde might be using the references to say that it’s perfectly natural for Shakespeare to admire Willie Hughes’ beauty because that’s what the Greeks did, and it’s actually one of the higher forms of affection.
Wilde even alludes to the Symposium at his trial. When questioned about the line, “the love that dare not speak its name” from one of Bosie’s poems, Wilde replied that, “There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him.” This defense had mixed results at the trial, but it’s interesting to see the ideas of the Symposium get referenced in multiple works of Wilde’s.
When reading “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” I could not help, but feel as if Wilde was describing himself in his deeply introspective analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets addressed to Mr. W.H.. The way he described the feelings of Shakespeare and the brilliant muse of the proposed Willie Hughes was much too personal to be simple conjecture. The passion Wilde addressed this mystery with was not the passion of a man unfamiliar with the intricacies of the feelings he described. As we know, Wilde was a man whose passions lied with the male gender. I cannot help but feel, when I read this short story, that Wilde is desperately trying to give his audience a clear representation of his own artistic agony. Being infatuated with the same gender landed Wilde in prison for a few years. This piece, I believe, is a clear look through the window of the author’s soul.
A controversial figure in his time, Wilde’s brilliance can not be ignored despite his tarnished reputation surrounding his sexuality. His words in this piece blur the lines between Shakespeare and Wilde until it feels like the author is just talking about his own experience. When reading this, I felt it was different from the other works we have read in class. To me, it read almost like a diary entry, lamenting his own not-so-secret love by transferring his obsession to researching the identity of another’s object of inspiration.
He wonders why he spent so much time on this project, but matters of the heart do not make sense. Being led by your heart sometimes takes you down the rabbit hole, and that is a little of what we are seeing here. Mr. W.H. is a being of pure conjecture, but the author wholeheartedly believes him to be true during his period of infatuation with him. The moment he shares his research and ideas we see the narrator do a complete one eighty. Once his passion project was out in the open, all the love was lost. Here we can see the seductive nature of a secret, which may hold true in Wilde’s own sexual preferences. Because it was forbidden and dangerous a homosexual relationship might be more seductive to Wilde. His written work is a masterpiece of art bursting with beautifully crafted ideas and arguments, but his diverse portfolio and many of the arguments he makes begs the question of a lasting passion. He is a man diametrically opposed to the ordinary, and believes art is a technique that is ever evolving into something new and astonishing. Maybe Wilde himself was one of his works of art, dedicated to the ideal of astonishment. There is no question of his passion or his preference for the male gender, but upon further reflection of this piece and his life as a whole, Wilde is the culmination of all his contradicting ideals. Specifically, in this story about Mr. W.H. gives us a transparency to the author that we rarely get to see. Making art is a labor of love, despite loving in such a judgemental time, Wilde persevered to give us his truly beautiful art.
I really enjoyed the unique blend of fiction and literary criticism in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”. The reflections about the art of acting were really interesting, and I enjoyed learning a little bit about the history of British theater. The line that stood out most to me was when the narrator explains that, “Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” (1201). This statement is situated at the end of the story when the narrator criticizes Erskine’s and Cyril’s deception by “the pathetic fallacy of martyrdom,” which refers to the fact that they believed that they were dying in the name of truth (1201). I thought that this critique of sacrificing life for belief could be ironic considering Wilde’s own history. This short story was written in 1889, which is about six years before Wilde would be unjustly imprisoned because of his sexual identity. I am no expert in this matter; however, from what we have discussed in class, Wilde had the opportunity to flee and avoid the stress of hard labor that most assuredly contributed to his death a few years after being released from prison. However, Wilde refused to escape and pleaded not guilty – even though his sexual relationship with men was widely known. In this way, one could view Wilde’s decision to stay in England and to be put on trial as an act of martyrdom for his family’s honor. There is no real way to know if Wilde wished to be heteronormative, but the phrase “what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” is interesting in this context. Could this statement be a subtle reflection of Oscar Wilde’s struggle to accept his non-normative sexual identity? Wilde lived in a society that was obviously very anti-LGBTQ, so it would be easy to see how Wilde could be pressured to become ashamed of his identity and conceal it at all costs.
Despite having spent a lot of time with The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I freely admit that each of the tales still puzzles me. The sort of irresolution we ended our class on them with feels maybe predictive of the irresolution I imagine I’ll feel even at the close of my thesis — almost more questions than answers. And I guess that’s some of their charm, that, like Wilde, they are a little elusive, seemingly random, but undeniably charming (I’m sure that’s a bit of a bold claim to make, but bear with me). It’s difficult too to identify what exactly gives them that quality, if it’s the abundance of small details such that it’s hard to know what to focus on, or perhaps their less-than-satisfying ends. It’s just hard to make something tangible of them — hard, but not impossible.
One element of “The Happy Prince” I’m still trying to understand are the religious details that come in at the very end. God asks his angels to bring him “‘the two most precious things in the city’” (277) and he is brought the Happy Prince’s heart and the dead Swallow. The Swallow is conferred into Paradise to sing eternally and the Happy Prince is restored to a city of gold. They are clearly rewarded for their love, as they are brought together to God. The question is why God must bestow this reward, when for the rest of the story all that seemed to matter was the relationship between the Prince and the Swallow and the value they found in each other. This sort of religious quirk at the end of a tale happens again in “the Selfish Giant” when the Giant is brought into Paradise by a child Christ: “You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden which is Paradise” (285). This line in “the Selfish Giant” however, allows a much more direct explanation of why the Giant is going to Heaven compared to that in “The Happy Prince” — the children can now play in his garden because he has learned not to be selfish. This direct line of reasoning doesn’t seem as critical in “The Happy Prince.” Perhaps it has something to do with the sacrifice of both the Happy Prince and the Swallow. While I don’t read their relationship to be wholly mutualistic, there is a sense in which they both died in the service of others — the Swallow to the Happy Prince and the Prince to his city and perhaps that granted them a place in Paradise.
What is most curious about these religious elements to me is not that they simply exist, or even puzzling out why they exist. Instead what feels most key about them to me is that, though they are abrupt, they are not out of joint with the rest of the story. While it is narratively confusing that God and his Angels appear at the end, it somehow doesn’t also feel wrong. It is as if on some level those elements just fit the story. I don’t have an explanation for why they fit, they just seem to, and it’s something I’m going to keep trying to explain as we keep thinking about Wilde this semester.
I registered for this course never having read Oscar Wilde’s works, and my main association with Wilde was his queerness. My first introduction to Wilde was in the context of a critical piece on “the closet” and how “the love that dare not speak its name” is coded in literature. For the first few weeks, I could not help but look for clues to Wilde’s queer identity in all of the works we read, despite the fact that our modern understanding of homosexuality is anachronistic to Wilde’s time. However, it was only during Abby’s discussion on The Happy Prince short stories that I really recognized the complexities in looking for meaning, both personal and artistic, in Wilde’s writing. I’ve been reading Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney recently, and the same day we discussed Wilde’s short stories, I came across a passage that fit perfectly with some of the complexities of his authorship that we touched on in class. One of the four main characters of the book is an author who discusses the issues that arise with her growing notoriety. She asks:
What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway? … what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralizing specificity? Nothing. It makes me miserable, keeps me away from the one thing in my life that has any meaning, contributes nothing to the public interest, satisfies only the basest and most prurient curiosities on the part of the readers, and serves to arrange literary discourse entirely around the domineering figure of ‘the author’ (Rooney 60).
While I do think there is value to studying an author alongside their work, this passage made me question how to read Wilde’s works without trying to find pieces of his personal life in them. Particularly in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H,” Wilde meditates on the relationship between two friends as the ultimate form of love describing, “the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover’s soul” (325). My first instinct was to read this passage as a hint of Wilde’s queer relationships, but when separating Wilde’s identity from this passage, it can instead be read as a reflection on sociology and how this platonic ideal of friendship was lost in Wilde’s time.
As I was reading the selection of poems for this week’s class, I found myself intrigued by how many darker poems were woven into the collection. With all the talk of beauty and art for art’s sake, it is interesting how many of these poems have more sinister undertones. “The Ballad of a Barber” ends with a murder and the subsequent hanging, “The Masquerade” imagines a world where people are forced to dance, and “Candlelight” contains “delicate flowers of death” (4). But the two poems that struck me the most were “The Dead Poet” and “Nihilism.”
“The Dead Poet” was written by Lord Alfred Douglas about the death of Oscar Wilde. I the thing that stood out to me about this poem is even though the language of the poem itself is describing the beauty of Wilde’s life, there is no part of the poem that doesn’t feel sad. Because of the title, and to some extent because of the last line (“And so I woke and knew that he was dead” (14)), the poems normally cheerful language takes on a somber, more desperate tone.
On the other hand, “Nihilism,” written by Lionel Johnson, does not use the same language strategies. Instead, this poem’s language is very abstract, and comes together in short lines, marked frequently by commas. This makes the lines really powerful, despite their abstractness (“of life I am afraid” or “The pausing from all thought!” (4, 10)).
Thought these two poems use different techniques, they both thematically touch upon the theme of death and our reactions to it. They are interesting to read write after the Happy Prince stories because while those stories have a certain playfulness to them that we read as the closest we had come to pure decadence, these poems do not have that same feeling. Death is a pretty strong opposite to playfulness, but it is also something all human beings, decadent or not, have to face.