I. Publication Contexts: The Fortnightly Review and Intentions
“Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde’s history of Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, appeared in two separate versions in 1889 and 1891. The first was published by Frank Harris in the January 1889 edition of the periodical The Fortnightly Review. (Janet E. Courtney wrote an account of Harris’s tenure as editor several decades later, in 1930; you can find it here.) The second, revised version of the essay appeared as one-fourth of Intentions, Wilde’s book on artistic criticism, published in London by Osgood, McIlvaine and Co. in May 1891. The same publisher released “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” later that year (Danson 1).
The four texts that compose this book – “The Decay of Lying,” “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” “The Critic as Artist,” and “The Truth of Masks” – date from various points in the late 1880s and early 1890s, though Wilde scholars offer different opinions on the specific dates. Lawrence Danson states that they were written between 1885 and 1890 (8). Richard Ellmann situates them later, in “the three years following [Matthew] Arnold’s death” in 1888 (“The Critic as Artist as Wilde,” xi). Despite these divergent views, Ellmann, Danson, and Josephine M. Guy all connect “Pen, Pencil and Poison” to Wilde’s 1886 lecture on the eighteenth century forger Thomas Chatterton (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 299; Danson 90; Guy xxx, 412). As Guy notes, the “lecture…is itself a kind of forgery, for it is composed mainly of cut-and-paste pages from two contemporary biographies” – a writing technique that Wilde would echo in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” (412).
Wilde may have had several motives for publishing Intentions. Perhaps the most obvious is his desire to assert his worth as a critic. According to Danson, Wilde sought “to secure a powerful position at the centre of the culture whose values he was subverting and whose laws he was flouting […] With these essays/dialogues/fictions (destabilizing the genres was part of the plot), Wilde tried to create the conditions for his own social and literary success. They were his boldest attempts to write himself into history by rewriting history” (6). This “rewriting” entailed displacing the critics who were then in vogue, the most important of whom were Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. Recent scholarship suggests that Intentions served as a coded challenge to Pater in particular. Josephine Guy argues that the “subtext” of “Pen, Pencil and Poison” was a “pointed analogy between Wainewright and…Pater” (xxxii), and observes that “the list of interests attributed to Wainewright can also be identified with Walter Pater” (418). Coupling this with a more direct approach, it “explicitly borrow[s] some of the best-known passages in the preface to [Pater’s book] The Renaissance” (xxxv). Ellmann implies in “The Critic as Artist as Wilde” that Pater was aware of this challenge, and that his positive comparison of Intentions to Matthew Arnold doubled as “a reminder…not to ignore him” (xi).
II. Sources for “Pen, Pencil and Poison”
Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) would have been well-known – or at least moderately well-known – in Wilde’s time. Wainewright had been dead for nearly half a century when Intentions was published in 1891; in the interim, numerous scholars and writers had taken it upon themselves to tell his story, often recounting it as an entertaining or scandalous aside in books about his contemporaries like William Blake. Wilde explicitly references many of these texts, including Algernon Charles Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay (1866), Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake (1863), various essays by Thomas De Quincey, and W. Carew Hazlitt’s edition of Essays and Criticisms by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1880). Charles Dickens also fictionalized Wainewright in “Hunted Down” (1859). According to Josephine Guy, this wealth of commentary meant that Wainewright “was somewhat ‘old news’ by the end of the [1880s], and it is not immediately obvious why any periodical editor would have wanted to publish an essay on him” (xxxi).
Wilde appears to have taken the biographical details in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” from the sources above, and his essay is for the most part factual, with the exceptions of a few minor fabrications by Wilde and some (likely accidental) confusion of proper names. Wainewright’s uncle “Thomas Griffiths,” for instance, was in fact named George Edward Griffiths (Peach; Guy 440), while Wainewright’s “strange mad fascination” with “a woman whom he loved” (Wilde 1103) has not been traced to any sources, and “appears to be [Wilde’s] invention” (Guy 442).
In many parts of the essay, however, Wilde paraphrases or even copies verbatim from other texts, particularly Hazlitt’s. Even the title – the catchy, alliterative “Pen, Pencil and Poison” – was a direct quote from Swinburne rather than Wilde’s own creation. As Guy notes, the essay also is rife with quotes, both cited and uncited, from Pater (xxxv), Matthew Arnold (425), and Wainewright himself (414).
III. Observations and Discussion Questions: Multiplicity of Art/Multiplicity of the Artist
1. Throughout the essay, Wilde links Wainewright to France and compares him to French writers and literary characters. The narrator first ties him to characters created by Balzac and Stendhal, remarking that “[t]here was something in him of Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempre. At times he reminds us of Julien Sorel” (1095), and he later comments that “[l]ike Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats” (1095). The catalog-like description of Wainewright’s interests – “Greek gems, and Persian carpets, and Elizabethan translations of Cupid and Psyche, and the Hypnerotomachia, and book-bindings, and early editions, and wide-margined proofs” – also reminded me of Huysmans (1095). Moreover, Wainewright travels to Boulogne, Brittany, and Paris when he decides “to go abroad till he could come to some practical arrangement with his creditors” (1103). Should we interpret this French connection as significant? Does France embody both art and the artist, and if so, why might it hold such a strong allure for Wainewright and for the narrator?
2. Wilde’s essay reprints selections from Wainewright’s art criticism, most notably extended descriptions of Rembrandt’s The Crucifixion (possibly The Three Crosses, pictured above) and Giulio Romano’s Cephalus and Procris. Although Wilde devotes a fair amount of time to mocking Wainewright’s writing style, he also praises his attempts “to translate [his] impressions [of the work as an artistic whole] into words” (1098), and goes so far as to state that “[t]he conception of making a prose poem out of paint is excellent” (1100). These examples appear to support his view that “[i]n a very ugly and sensible age, the arts borrow, not from life, but from each other” (1100). Can we relate this idea to other works we’ve read so far – for instance, to the Preface in The Picture of Dorian Gray – in order to link separate pieces of Wilde’s art to one another? Does Wilde’s conflation of life with art complicate or upend the sentiment he espouses here?
3. Wilde frequently creates humor by juxtaposing the morbid and the lighthearted. When Wainewright poisons his sister-in-law Helen Abercrombie, the essay’s tone undergoes a jarring shift from earnest remembrance of the deceased to impersonal analysis of Wainewright’s art: “When they returned, Helen Abercrombie was dead. She was about twenty years of age, a tall graceful girl with fair hair. A very charming red-chalk drawing of her by her brother-in-law is still in existence, and shows how much his style was influenced by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a painter for whose work he had always entertained a great admiration” (1103). Similarly, after his host in Boulogne “died…in his presence, …he left Boulogne at once for a sketching tour through the most picturesque parts of Brittany” (1103). Do these passages contradict or support Wilde’s insistence that “[t]here is no essential incongruity between crime and culture” (1106)? Or do they merely prove that Wainwright “is far too close to our own time for us to be able to form any purely artistic judgment” (1106)?
4. The humorous depiction of murder in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” provokes comparisons to “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”; additionally, the two works were published by the same company only months apart. Beyond surface resemblances, they also may offer opposing perspectives regarding the question of fate. Danson writes that Intentions deals with “the dilemma that figures as the two faces of Dorian Gray, the aspiration freely to create one’s personality or personalities or masks, versus the fear of fatality” (Danson 19). How does Lord Arthur Savile’s fear of the chiromantist’s prediction contrast with Wainewright’s motives, which range from the purely economic to the arbitrary (Wilde notes that “[h]is aim [in killing his friend in Boulogne] was simply to revenge himself on the first office that had refused to pay him the price of his sin” )? Is there a difference in the end?
5. “Pen, Pencil and Poison” is subtitled “A Study in Green.” Near the end of the essay, Wilde examines this color in the context of a novel by Émile Zola: “M. Zola, in one of his novels, tells us of a young man who, having committed a murder, takes to art, and paints greenish impressionist portraits of perfectly respectable people, all of which bear a curious resemblance to his victim. The development of Mr. Wainewright’s style seems to me far more subtle and suggestive” (1106). The color green has a number of connotations in the texts we’ve read: it can evoke poison, as it seems to do here, as well as drugs like hashish (for instance, in Monsieur Vénus) and even the emotion of envy. Why does Wilde discuss green most explicitly at this moment in the essay, in the context of a book by another author and as part of an effort to insult that author?
Algernon Charles Swinburne. Photograph. “Algernon Charles Swinburne.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/algernon-charles-swinburne>.
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—. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Print.
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