Month: March 2014

Helas! Times Have Changed…

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In “Helas!” Oscar Wilde laments his generation and its movement’s departure from the ideals and artistic philosophies of the Classical world. The “stringed lute” (2) is the soul of Oscar Wilde and anyone who lives the Aesthetic lifestyle. The mission is to “drift with every passion” (1) and to indulge the desires of the soul and its attraction to beautiful and pleasurable things. This lifestyle is embodied in Des Esseintes’ self-isolation and withdrawal into a world of artistic contemplation as well as Dorian Gray’s hedonistic bender in Wilde’s own novel. In “Helas!” Aestheticism is portrayed as fatuous and non-productive. The movement and its use of the soul is described with phrases like “boyish holiday” (6) and “idle songs” (7) to downplay its gravitas, especially as compared to the more mature philosophical goals of Classical philosophers.

Wilde describes the opportunity he passed up to follow in the path of his Grecian idols and aspire to lofty and noble truths: “Surely there was a time I might have trod/ The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance/ Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God” (9-11). Here, Wilde uses a musical metaphor to juxtapose the material world and the world of Platonic forms. “Dissonance” is the former, a fate of failure that can be transcended by the “one clear chord.” It’s left to the reader what that chord might be, but in context I would guess it is a “Eureka” moment during deep philosophical contemplation or a stroke of artistic genius that captures an otherworldly beauty.

The ancient world, even if you narrow it down to just Greek philosophers in a specific time period, contained a diversity of philosophical voices with endorsements of multitudinous lifestyles and moral choices. It is revealing to see how Wilde characterizes the plethora of ideas in a poetical line or phrase. At the very least it can help the reader guess what philosopher or what school of philosophy Wilde might be referencing. For instance, the phrase “ancient wisdom, and austere control” (4) points to the moral philosophy of virtuous self-restraint or maybe Stoicism. These ideas clash, in Wilde’s mind, with the zeitgeist of his time—a tendency towards luxury, self-indulgence, pleasure, and dabbling.

Are there any positives to the choice that Wilde thinks his movement has made? The overall tone and title imply that the negatives outweigh the positives, but there are hints of the rewards of Aestheticism and Decadence. For example, the poet for a moment seems to reminisce about an experience of sweetness and interpersonal connection that his lifestyle afforded him: “With a little rod/ I did but touch the honey of romance” (12-13). Still, the pessimistic finale upstages the brief mention of benefit: “And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?” (14). Here, Wilde gives a clear nod to his Classical intellectual ancestors with the use of the phrase “soul’s inheritance”. He regrets that the Aesthetic lifestyle seems a slap in the face and rejection of the truths and beauties that were passed down to him when he read the Classics.


Transcendence of Art Forms: A Study of Literary Synesthesia (Final)

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Transcendence of Art Forms: A Study of Literary Synesthesia

FRENCH 112: Final Project


Where Shakespeare’s drama meets Beethoven’s music, here we experience the ideal work of art.  The union of lyricism and symphony, the “two great halves of a universal whole,” was introduced by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) as the supreme art form (Bentley, 289).  The German composer and critic presented to mid-19th century Europe the term Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.”  He revolutionized classical opera into “music dramas,” where the poet adapts his own epic to his musical composition.  The artist is at once poet and musician, stimulating all senses to reach aesthetic beauty.

Unable to see his operas produced while in exile, Wagner occupied his time writing, attributing the failures of the 1848 Revolutions to the loss of Ancient Greek principles (Wagner, 30).  In the wake of the Revolutions of 1848, ad hoc revolutions based on political discontent across Europe, and his exile from Germany, polemicist Wagner wrote about the role of art in society in his long essay “Art and Revolution” (1849), the first of a series of three essays.  He presented the decay of his society in stark contrast to the ideal of Ancient Greek drama, which combined dance, music, and poetry into a singular coherent whole.  He expounds how the Greeks perfected Drama in their unity of artworks “that lived in the public conscience.” The decay of Drama, and hence Art, is attributed to the component art forms “pursuing its own development […] in lonely self-sufficiency […] in the conscience of private persons” (Wagner, 52).  As the hero, Wagner applied this unification principle to his own work.

Richard Wagner

Synthesizing the poetic, visual, and musical into the realm of drama, Wagner realized his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk in his four opera cycle Der Ring Nielungen(1848-1874). [click here for a trailer of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of 2012]  However, Wagner did not coin this term.  Indeed he only used the exact term Gesamtkunstwerk on but few occasions, in his essay “Art and Revolution,” and in the second essay of the polemic series “Artwork of the Future” (1849).[1]  Still, the term became essential to his conception of aesthetic ideals.  Wagner demanded two main factors be present in a total work of art: “poetry, carried to its utmost limits in drama; and music carried to its utmost limits as the interpreter and deepener of dramatic action” (Bentley, 309).  To apply Wagner’s definition of Gesamtkunstwerk as the perfect artwork for unifying all art forms evokes “synesthesia,” the harmonious associations of disparate artistic sensations.  Synesthesia extends beyond mere automatic sensory experience to also include the evocation of past experiences.

While Wagner’s use of the term Gesamtkunstwerk likely applies solely to his notion of operatic drama, here we will explore how the elements of Gesamtkunstwerk also work their way into the great Symbolist and Decadent literary oeuvres.  We will demonstrate how Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” and Wilde’s play Salomé, although not per se operatic, in fact achieve Gesamtkunstwerk because their works satisfy all the necessary elements of a total work of art.

The collaboration of all art forms interested the French Symbolists.  At the origin of the Symbolist movement is Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), acclaimed French poet and critic.  While Baudelaire had no formal musical training, he reveled in Wagner’s talent “à peindre l’espace et la profondeur, matériels et spirituels,” (to paint space and depth, material and spiritual) (Baudelaire, 217).  Baudelaire, with a level of narcissism, viewed himself as the translator of the soul, the musician of French poetry.  Upon hearing Wagner’s music, Baudelaire wrote “Il me semble que cette musique était la mienne” (it seems to me that this music is mine) (Marie, 49).  In Wagner, Baudelaire found synesthesia and Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Charles Baudelaire

Our French poet, struck by the magnificence of Wagner, wrote a critical text to music called “Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris” (1861). [click here for full text]  Baudelaire cites Wagner himself, explaining how the unification of art forms “contribuent ensemble à jeter l’esprit dans cet état de rêve qui le porte bientôt jusqu’à la pleine clairvoyance, et l’esprit découvre alors un nouvel enchaînement des phénomènes du monde, que ses yeux ne pouvaient apercevoir dans l’état de veille ordinaire” (together contribute to throw the spirit in this dream state that soon transports to the full clairvoyance, and the spirit discovers a new sequence of phenomenon in the world, that the eyes could not see in the ordinary waking state) (Marie, 50).  Achieving this higher spiritual state can be effected when the artist supplies the audience with a total work of art, drawing upon synesthesia to manifest this transformation.  Baudelaire inscribed the first two stanzas of his famed poem “Correspondences” (1857) as the translation of Wagner’s music. [click here for the full poem] He saw – and heard—a symbiosis of sound and color of the Idea.

La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles ;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

(Nature is a temple, where the living

Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech;

Man walks within these groves of symbols, each

Of which regards him as a kindred thing.

As the long echoes, shadowy, profound,

Heard from afar, blend in a unity,

Vast as the night, as sunlight’s clarity,

So perfumes, colors, sounds may correspond.)

(translated by James McGowie).

When we examine a poem, on the surface not a “total work of art” in the broad Wagnerian sense, elements of Wagner’s intuitive concept are still evoked.  Baudelaire applied his esprit beyond allegories and representations, advancing symbols to stimulate a transformative state of mind. The Symbolist artists also exercised this practice, a similar state of mind induced by Gesamtkunstwerk.  When reading the poem, Baudelaire transports his audience beyond mere synesthesia, the association of between sounds, scents, and sight.

The synthesis of impression, combining and confusing “les parfums, les couleurs et les sons” materializes into the “forêts de symboles.”  Yet, unlike the synesthesia of associations, this poem evokes a unity between these correspondences.  In the first quatrain, “nature” is expressed as a system of perpetual analogies, where everything accords.  Human beings are not aware of a total unity of nature, but “man” may experience soft sounds “doux comme les hautbois,” or fresh scents “parfums, frais comme les chairs d’enfants.”  These associations are not random, they “se répondent,” the five senses answering, indeed echoing, one another.  In this fashion, we experience an element of the Gesamtkunstwerk, here reflected both in symbols and sensations.

In his Alexandrian sonnet, Baudelaire added a further layer of musicality.  His prosodic lyrics are harmonious, tying together syllables of its title throughout the poem.  This first syllable, [kɒ] from “correspondences,” appears in line 2 “confuses,” line 5 “comme,” “échos,” and “confondent,” line 7 “comme,” line 9 “comme,” line 10 “comme,” line 11 “corrompus,” and line 13 “comme.”  Another syllable is [põ] from “correspondences.”  This syllable appears and accumulates through phonetics in line 2 “parfois sortir de confuses paroles,” line 5 “longs…confondent,” line 6 “profonde,” line 8 “parfums…respondent,” and line 11 “corrompus…triomphants.” This reverberation of sounds flowing through the poems demonstrates a musicality and lyrical wholeness, both key elements underlying Gesamtkunstwerk. [click here to listen to the poem read in French]

Returning to Wagner’s theory from the essays “Art and Revolution” and “Artwork of the Future,” this incorporation of musicality to prose realized the harmony of Modern Speech: This harmony, “in itself a thing of thought,” (Bentley, 303) expresses a bond between absent and present emotions.  Likewise, Baudelaire’s poem demonstrates this transformative thought, carrying sensations beyond the quotidian into the realm of spirituality.  The first stanza, for example, hints at a nostalgic view of nature degraded by sin.  However, the celebration of this ecstasy of the senses prevails.  Nature, a quasi-divine living temple where man wanders blindly, aids this “man” to participate in a full experience.  Still, Nature is not the sole link between the sensory and the spiritual.  A transcendent element corresponding to these aspects is required.

The poem itself manifests these correspondences.  The language in the art of the poem suggests a “higher plan of spiritual awareness,” joining Nature with art (Varty, 140).  The Symbolists practiced how to establish these repetitive links that bind the world, both real and imaginative, together.  Baudelaire’s repetition of similes (“comme”) demonstrates the “capacity of man to escape his dereliction thanks to the synthetic power of imagination,” (Michon, 23).  Not any “man” can connect distant words; the exception is the poet.  The poet uses these similes to synthesize the disarray of sensory experience into organized, spiritual transcendence.

This unity of disparate artistic elements exhibited in the poem reminds us of Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of music and lyric that carries the reader towards a higher state.  Baudelaire’s symbolist document connects the reader with nature and the metaphysical world.  Our poet is able to impart these correspondences only through words.  Yet, these words are arranged in such a way as to manipulate and unite musical tones, dramatic effect, synthesized emotion, and past experience.  Through forceful sensory presence coupled with repetitive musicality supplied by the poet, the reader may achieve the “temple,” a spiritual realm no unlike that envisioned by Wagner.  While “Correspondences” is but a poem in form, its power of language functions as a total work of art, precisely the objective aspired by Gesamtkunstwerk.

Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé functions much in this same way.  As a written play, it, like Baudelaire’s poem, is not, at first glance, what Wagner’s envisioned in Gesamtkunstwerk.  Still, the play itself, destined for the Symbolist stage, achieves the criteria for a total work of art.  Before the staging, the work creates the elements of harmony sought by Wagner.

The style in Salomé relies heavily on repetition.  Salomé’s phrases are periodic and insistent.  “I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan” or “suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan” are repeated twelve times throughout the play (Wilde, 590-605).  Perhaps Salomé’s self-echoing is a sign of obsession, but she is not the only character who repeats phrases.  Another example is the Page of Herodias who warns “something terrible may happen” five times, repeated by Herod just before the execution “I am sure that some misfortune will happen” (Wilde, 584-604).  This use of repetition, as we observed with Baudelaire, adds a dimension of musicality to the words.

As Wagner uses leitmotifs, the short, constant musical phrases associated with a person, place, or idea in his operas, so does Wilde in his plays.  Although not composing music, Wilde applies this very technique.  The moon, gaze, and death are all reoccurring symbols that are intimately and concretely related to a person or idea.  In this sense, the musicality of the motif is infused directly with the theater character: One recognizes the play’s characters, not only by the spoken word, but also by the “musical” themes with which they are associated.  Wilde himself reflected on “the refrains whose recurring motifs makes Salomé so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad” (Wilde, 1026).  Words arranged by the artist affect a quality as if borrowed from music, exhibiting a total work of art.

Another insistent motif employed by Wilde is color.  Every object possesses color, from the scenery of the terrace in “green bronze,” to the three “purple, yellow, and red” wines Herod drinks, to the gold and silver of the Chaldeans.  This “color symphony reaches its height” as Salomé states her obsessive desires “which she can only express in colors” (Jackson, 12).  By use of motifs, expressed as similes, Salomé is consumed by Jokanaan’s white body, repeating shades of “white” seven times, his black hair, repeating “black” five times, and his red mouth, repeating shades of “red” thirteen times.  This symphony of color is only described in the play, not seen by the reader, yet these motifs of color still infuse the experience, giving rise to the sensory element intrinsic in Gesamtkunstwerk.

Salomé is not only symphonic in its emphasis on color, but the rhythm and repetition that “follow a musical technique” (Jackson, 13).  In this way, Wilde’s written play is able to combine drama and music, precisely as Wagner envisioned in total work of art.  Moreover, the play was intended to be staged for the Symbolist theatre.  Symbolist theater “sought to provoke a cumulative overflow of sensual impressions” and to “transport the audience into a strange, fascinating aesthetic universe of emotional excess” (Dierkes-Thrun, 62).  Many experts have written about staged Salomé as a total work of art, yet, even in this form, the staged play does not fit, at least at first glance, Wagner’s definition of Gesamtkunstwerk.  Wilde does, however, apply Wagner’s principles in order for this oeuvre to function as Gesamtkunstwerk. 

We could describe Salomé as “total theatre” that “strives to orchestra sound, light, movement, costumes and décor, speech, music, and dance, blending visual and aural effects to create one whole and indivisible staged entity” (Tydeman and Price, 3).  Wilde never had the opportunity to witness the staging of his play, yet as a proponent of Wagner’s concept, he saw the stage as the “meeting-place of all the arts” (Tydeman and Price, 3).  Wilde envisioned “a highly stylized stage set, costumes, and performance style that would produce such comprehensive sensation and synesthesia” (Dierkes-Thrun, 62). [click here and scroll to page 47 to see Wilde’s own stage sketch] In addition, Wilde planned color schemes and even braziers of perfumes, clearly imagining Salomé “as a fest for the senses, combining Wagner’s and the Symbolists’ synesthetic ideals of Gesamtkunstwerk production” (Dierkes-Thrun, 63).  The complete indulgence in the sensory experience allows the audience, like the reader of Baudelaire, to transcend the ordinary, natural world, achieving a higher, spiritual realm, the transcendent realm of Gesamtkunstwerk.

The staging of Wilde’s script, first as a Symbolist play, then as a modern opera, more clearly meets the criteria for Gesamtkunstwerk because their productions can serve the sensory experiences of touch, smell, sight, and sound, all elements within a total work of art.  The first performance of Salomé was produced and directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), an Austrian stage director.  The “displacement of language by sound, movement and dance” of Wilde’s play, “led Reinhardt to a quasi-operatic form of production” (Tydeman and Price, 32).  Reinhardt desired to “reinvent the theatre as a space that would speak to all the senses and provide a stage for ‘the music of the world’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 64).  Putting to the stage Wilde’s envisioned play, without technically producing Wagner’s music-drama, Reinhardt celebrates Gesamtkunstwerk.

Max Reinhardt

Reinhart’s staging directly influenced Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a German composer, who attended Reinhart’s opening night.  Strauss transformed Wilde’s play into an operatic rendition, literally the music-drama Wagner conceived.  Critics described this modernist oeuvre as “ ‘a harmonic tour de force,’ ” an “ ‘intentional cacophony’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 65).  The music is thunderous and sensational, ubiquitously using “dissonances, bitonal surprises, and dramatic effects”, as Strauss intended for “something monstrous, stimulating the nerves in the extreme’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 66).  As Wilde intended, and as Wagner specified, Strauss’ operatic Salomé overwhelms the senses in true expression of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Richard Strauss

Richard Wagner illustrated how the combination of words, movement, and orchestra may achieve a total work of art.  When separated, each art form is inherently limited.  Wagner identified the integrated combination of all forms of art as a superior artwork. Gesamtkunstwerk not only induces synesthesia, but also transforms thought, allowing the audience to achieve a higher spiritual realm.  To produce the objectives of Gesamtkunstwerk, a work of art does not have to literally embody the operatic music-drama, like Wagner composed.  Baudelaire, in his poem “Correspondences,” through prosodic and synesthetic speech, supplies his reader with glimpses of a metaphysical journey.  Likewise, Wilde presents his Salomé reader with indulgence of the senses, painting his words and weaving rhythmic fabric into the script.  The written play rises above its mere words to evoke spiritual transcendence.  In this way, both this poetry and this script function as a total work of art.

The supreme art form, whether operatic or literary, may achieve Gesamtkunstwerk, uniting sensations and experience to materialize thoughts in a harmonic cacophony of the senses.  The audience or reader does not need to see and hear opera to experience the transcendent spiritual realm envisioned by Wagner.  Where poetry and theatre, each an independent art form, satisfy the elements of a total work of art, synesthesia and transcendence are achieved.

[1] In Richard Wagner’s Prose Works (1895), p.34, where the word is translated as ‘great united work’; p.52 where it is translated as ‘great unitarian Art-work’; and p.88 (twice) where it is translated as ‘great united Art-work’.  In the translation, the actual term “Gesamtkunstwerk” never appears, yet, there are frequent references to this “perfect,” “noble,” “highest” art form.

Works Cited and Consulted

Behr, Shulamith, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman. Expressionism Reassessed. Manchester [England]: Manchester University Press, 1993.

Bentley, Eric. The Theory of the Modern Stage: an Introduction to Modern Theatre and Drama.Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

DiGaetani, John Louis. Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978.

Jackson, Halbrook, Wilde, Oscar, and Alfred Bruce Douglas. Salome: a Tragedy In One Act. New York: The Heritage Press, 1945.

Marie, Gisèle. Le Theatre Symboliste: Ses Origines, Ses Sources, Pionniers Et Realisateurs. Paris, A.-G. Nizet, 1973.

Michon, Pascal “Rhythm, Organization of Signifiance and Subjectivity in Baudelaire’s Correspondances,” Rhuthmos, 25 June 2010 [online].

Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tydeman, William, and Steven Price. Wilde–salome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Varty, Anne. A Preface to Oscar Wilde. London: Longman, 1998.

Wagner, Richard, and William Ashton Ellis. Richard Wagner’s Prose Works. 2nd ed. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895.

Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003.


Art and decadence

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I am no collector of paintings or prints, and I am definitely not the type to sit in front of a Rothko painting for hours finding depth in the three layers of colour in Rothko number 205. Still, even I, in my self-righteous disdain for pictorial art’s bourgeois appeal, recognize the potency of art.

The art of painting or print is preoccupied with representation of the real and true object on a two dimensional plane. This representation obviously suggests a masking of reality and creating a mirage of the truth, which is also ultimately decadent literature’s main feature. Inversion and the concept of the mask as the ultimate truth are two defining hallmarks of decadence, and through close reading and analysis of the fin du siècle texts we have explored both rather extensively this quarter. It is no wonder then that alongside decadent literature existed an entire art movement that attempted to represent the scenes from the fin du siècle texts. The lithographic prints of scenes from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Redon for instance, not only immortalize the texts in pictorial form, but also provide a medium suited to the nature of the texts. In his portrayal of the flagellation scene, Redon’s usage of the lithograph blurs the scene and hides a true nature of the events unfolding in the scene. This obscuring of events offers suggestions of an inverted reading into the scene—a reading that might suggests an inversion of good and evil or a celebration of crime and vice.

Since the lithograph is in a two-dimensional plane, the depth perception becomes blurred, warping the entire scene. The man performing the whipping appears far from the woman, and one cannot discern the position of his arm, because of the flat plane medium. The scene looks impossible in that the man appears unlikely to cause harm to the woman, suggesting that the flagellation is not necessarily a punishment, but maybe a tease, which the woman is coyly accepting. This obscuring of the scene allows for an alternate reading of the scene, in the same way Gustave Flaubert’s text also presents the scene somewhat ambiguously.

Another example of this parallel between the decadent texts and their illustrations lies in the work of Audrey Beardsley in illustrating Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Though consociates, the two artists were not friends and in spite of the impression of Wilde’s play on him being so potent as to spur him to illustrate its climactic moment entirely autonomously, Beardsley shared the opinion of many of the two men’s contemporaries that the originality of Wilde’s work was questionable. This artistic feuding aside there are great parallels in the Beardsley’s illustrations and Wilde’s preceding text. In Beardsley’s illustrations, he presents a self satisfied Salome, smugly sitting on a phallic symbol, sneering at the symbol. She is portrayed with a very composed hairstyle to depict her control in the situation and there is a confident air in her presentation. The representation of the Salome in Beardsley’s work is that of a woman who is powerful, comfortable and satisfied with her newly discovered power.  This is the Salome in the play by Oscar Wilde, and in this situation again, prints represent the fin du siècle text.  Her satisfied expression can also be attributed to self pleasuring activity (similar to the seemingly masturbatory scene in Monsieur Vénus), for it can be argued that her dress is disguising just that beneath it, perhaps symbolising the gratification she feels in her dominion in negotiations with Herod.

Also rather unfortunately, a self-proclaimed artless unenlightened individual has spent quite a little time writing about the impact of artistic representation. Perhaps my disdain is my mask.


Word count 565


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Limitations of Decadent Works as Amoral Texts

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Decadence was delivered to me packaged in promises of absolutely no judgment. Amorality was its doctrine, and after having my entire life dictated by an incessant fear of consequence and a constant reminder of the stark dividing line between what was wrong and what was right; I was seduced by its message. As I near the end of the class, I am reminded that even the decadents, in their indulgence and disdain for social norms and morality, fell prey to the ‘reality’ of consequence and morality. In this post, I will attempt to explain that the decadents’ efforts were undone by mainly two factors: their reliance on consequence as the ending of their novels and by their reliance on language as their medium for delivering their message. For the purpose of this blog post, I am going to look The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde and the poem Hymn to Beauty by Baudelaire.

Decadence, or rather decadence as I have experienced it, seems preoccupied with waging a war against ‘mainstream’ morality. The fin de siècle writers like Oscar Wilde and in some ways precursors of decadence like Charles Baudelaire, define themselves through the conflict and contrast against what would be considered moral, and this contradiction attempts to indicate the irrelevance of morality in artistry and in the living of artistic life. The paradox however is that these really deliberate, sometimes extreme attempts at inversion and contrast, instead of rendering morality irrelevant, only serve to indicate its importance, and reinforce its validity. In The Picture of Dorian Gray’s preface, Oscar Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” This statement asserts the idea of ‘l’art pour l’art”, used to defend his own work from moral criticism of its subject matter. Paradoxically, his own work is a moral condemnation of the attractive features of Decadence and of living life as if it were art, and therefore beyond good and evil. Dorian at the end of the novel is undone by his own desire for experience for experience’s sake, and similar harsh fates are at the end of the stories of all the books we have read this quarter. Is morality then irrelevant to art and life as art? It is hard to believe this, especially when even the artists who believe this seem incredibly involved with consequence, which is itself very sated with the existence of morality.

Another factor that greatly limits the decadents in their quest to present art as amoral is their reliance on language as a vehicle for their cause. Words are not amoral, and by making decisions about word choice, we constantly work with the paradigms of morality and immorality. In Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde shares an exchange about definition of love, religion and the self, and he ends by writing that “To define is to limit.” This is the truth of words, which in their attempt to enable communication require definition and connotation. The definition and connotation of words leads to their moralization. A word like ‘sin’ for instance, even when qualified by adjectives like beautiful and wonderful, still carries its baggage of negativity. Decadents like Oscar Wilde can only attempt to cloak negative words with positivity, but this does not change the reality of those words’ moralization. The artificial, even when packaged as true, cannot shed the definition that limits it, and as unfortunate as that it, it is incontrovertible. Charles Baudelaire, who is credited for starting the inversion that has become associated with decadence, inverts the understanding of beauty to include the dark, sinister and monstrous. He writes “Your gaze bestows both kindnesses and crimes” and “Are you from heaven or the nether world?” and in both instances it is clear that he attempts to portray beauty, which is seen as absolutely positive, as also potentially evil and dark. This is obviously apparent to the reader, but the weakness of this attempted inversion is that it will only be seen as that—an inversion. Beauty will still remain within the limits of its definition and the inversion will only exist as mask or a quirk, but never an absolute reversal. ‘Crime’ does not become positive simply because it is equated with beauty. Its elevation ultimately comes from its redefinition, and not play on words with limited meaning. Charles Baudelaire makes several attempts at this inversion in The Sick Muse, The Swan and The Venal Muse and in each case the limitations of language cripple his attempts at an absolute reversal of the sentiments and value.


Note: I too am aware of the limitations of language in my blog post. Perhaps a new hybrid language is severely needed.


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Wilde & Mallarme: The Struggle of the Artist

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            In Oscar Wilde’s poem “The Artist,” there is inescapable intertwining of the eternal struggle of human experience– “The Sorrow that endureth forever”– and the brief moments of pleasure that allow it to continue– “The pleasure that abideth for a moment.” In this prose poem, the bronze acts the symbol for the artist’s personal experience, which is the only material from which he can fashion the work of art. The loss of love, a source of deep sorrow, experienced by the artist, is the altar to which he offers the image of Sorrow:

“Now this image he had himself, and with his own hands, fashioned, and had set it on the tomb of the one thing he had loved in life.”

What is truly fascinating is that this image is not transformed into that of pleasure until he fully accepts his loss: It is only then that he can set fire to the image, and harden into art the moment of pleasure. To me, this represents the artist’s way of crystallizing pleasure in such a way that it evokes joy for the spectator, but with the underlying knowledge that it comes from a place of tragedy (the bronze material).  

            In French symbolist poet Mallarmé’s “Apparition”, there is a sense that an aura of sorrow exists, from which a spark of beauty can be created. In the case of this poem, the “Sorrow that endureth forever” is represented through the description of beautiful things, and thus encapsulated into a piece of art.

“The moon was saddening. Seraphim in tears

Dreaming, bow in hand, in the calm of vaporous

Flowers, were drawing from dying violins

White sobs gliding down blue corollas

It was the blessed day of your first kiss.”

            Merely in this first stanza, the image of crying is superimposed onto gorgeous images of “blue corollas” and “vaporous flowers,” creating a beautiful scene out of a sorrowful moment. By presenting this continuous confusing, sorrowful existence through ethereal images, he exemplfiies the linkage between tragedy and beauty. It is difficult to imagine “dying violins”, but there a sense of decay, perhaps in a undulating minor scale which emerges from the instrument, creating a indiscernible marriage of melodic beauty with disintegrating emotion. One is immersed into a mythical garden which sensorily reflects the depths of this human feeling, when suddenly, it is punctuated by a moment of pleasure: The first kiss. This kiss represented to me the moment of joy, “The pleasure that abideth for a moment”, as Wilde would put it, of a desperate existence. This fleeting moment of pleasure is what artists forever seek to solidify, and what Mallarmé wishes to evoke from his reader. 

Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

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At first glance, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898) seems to show that the stance that Wilde takes in the “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” where the narrator emphasizes that “[T]here is no essential incongruity between crime and culture” cannot be completely applied to this poem, because the questions of Art and Beauty are not the main focus of this work. On the contrary, this poem might be viewed as an anti-capital punishment manifesto where the narrator is preoccupied with the issues of morality and religion and depicts them in a rather moralizing tone. Astringent criticism in the poem is directed towards the legal system where “—every Law/ That men hath made for Man,/ —/But straws the wheat and saves the chaff/ With a most evil fan.” (896) and prison system where “It is only what is good in Man/ That wastes and withers there./—/And all, but Lust, is turned to dust/ In Humanity’s machine.” (897) In addition, the reflection that the dehumanizing lack of humanity within the prison, where “—never a human voice comes near/ To speak a gentle word:/ And the eye that watches through the door/ Is pitiless and hard:/ And by all forgot, we rot and rot,/ With soul and body marred,” (898) is not only the fault of the prison warden and the prison guards, but reveals much deeper issues of the cruelty and the hypocrisy of the whole society is expressed already in the first part of the poem through the lines that with slight variations are repeated throughout the poem: “The man had killed the thing he loved,/ And so he had to die./ Yet each man kills the thing he loves,/ —–Yet each man does not die.” (884) Only few of the prisoners are actually able to realize that “—had each got his due,/ They should have died instead:/ He had but killed a thing that lived,/ Whilst they had killed the dead.” (893) It might be an exaggeration to claim that the narrator of the poem completely justifies a murder of another man. In fact, the viewpoint that crime has to be punished is not only the general understanding but the one of the narrator of the poem seems to be indicated at the end of the poem through the lines: “No need to waste the foolish tear,/ Or heave the windy sigh:/ The man had killed the thing he loved,/ And so he had to die.” (899) However, the narrator’s stance that it is not only the physical murder that should be condemned and that actually each person commits some kind of crime, which, not punishable by law, might be considered even heavier than a physical murder, is clearly expressed and delivered to the reader in the beginning of the poem and repeated throughout it: Yet each man kills the thing he loves,/ By each let this be heard/ Some do it with a bitter look,/ Some with a flattering word./ The coward does it with a kiss,/ The brave man with a sword./ —– The kindest use a knife, because/ The dead so soon grow cold.” (884) That everyone is at fault but those who are outside the prison are more cunning (and therefore, hypocritical) is delivered through the imagined speech of evil sprites that torture the prisoners at night: “’Oho!’ they cried, ‘The world is wide/ But fettered limbs go lame!/ And once, or twice, to throw the dice/ Is a gentlemanly game,/ But he does not win who plays with Sin/ In the secret House of Shame.’” (890) Moreover, the description of “unblessed spot” that the world would consider as tainted because of “a murderer’s heart” (895) once again shows the hypocrisy of the society and that of the religious institutions that do not act in accord with the idea that “God’s kindly earth/ Is kindlier than men know” (Ibid.) and “–a broken and a contrite heart/ The Lord will not despise.” (899) The religious hypocrisy is embodied in the figure of the prison chaplain who “would not kneel to pray/By his [murderer’s] dishonoured grave,” even though the punished man would be “one of those/ Whom Christ came down to save.” (896)

Thus, the executioners’ attitude towards the body of the man after the execution (“They stripped him of his canvas clothes,/ And gave him to the flies:/ They mocked the swollen purple throat,/ And the stark and staring eyes:/ And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud/ In which their convict lies.” (896)) as well as their overall behavior towards the prisoners embodies the way how the society has conveniently made the condemned men that “[t]he world had thrust” from its heart (887) into the objects of mockery who “[l]ike ape or clown, in monstrous garb” (894) go around and around in front of the eyes of their observers.

Nevertheless, contrary to the first impressions, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” cannot be viewed merely as a narrators (and the author’s) means to moralize. From the beginning, in addition to the depiction of the mental state of the prisoners, the disclosure the hypocrisy of the society, the religious institutions, as well as the religious contemplations, this poem clearly reveals Wilde’s preoccupation with the Art. The very first lines of the poem describe the murder in a rather artistic manner appealing to the visual senses of the reader and implying the possibility of the murder as some form of art. In addition, it clearly depicts the dehumanizing effect that the removal of beauty and any possibility of aesthetic experience has on the state of a human being: “The shard, the pebble, and the flint,/ Are what they give us there:/ For flowers have been known to heal/ A common man’s despair.” (895) The beauty would not only heal the despair of men who have to suffer within the prison walls. It has an ability to provide one with something akin to a religious revelation, with the salvation: “So never will wine-red rose or white,/ Petal by petal, fall/ On that stretch of mud and sand that lies/ By the hideous prison-wall,/ To tell the man who tramp the yard/ That God’s Son died for all.” (895)

Consequently, even though it seems that “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” indicates a drastic change in Wilde’s world view, where the beauty and the artistic have been replaced by the morality (and/or moralizing) and ethical sympathies, which as Wilde claims in “The Preface” of The Picture of Dorian Gray, are “an unpardonable mannerism of style,” such a conclusion would be a result of a rather simplified reading of this poem. Through creating the poem that can be experienced through the reading (experience factor while reading the poem as a piece of art from the viewpoint of the reader) and that depicts the artistic factor of experiencing something, be it a murder or suffering, Wilde still shows that he  is faithful to his belief that the artistic and aesthetic experience and the beauty is something to be valued above anything else .

– Wanda

Word count (including quotes): 1155

Ephemerality and Perpetuity in “The Artist” (blog post)

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In the poem in prose, “The Artist,” it is difficult to miss the undertones of ephemerality and perpetuity that Wilde wove into the piece. It is also interesting to note that, much like the lines between the artistic and physical worlds are blurred in The Picture of Dorian Gray, so to are the lines between the ephemeral and the eternal blurred in “The Artist.” In the poem, the idea (also reflected in other works by Wilde) that pleasure can come from pain is also explored.

The poem begins with the Artist receiving a desire to make an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. It should be noted that this desire is a capricious one which comes to him out of the blue and which he then sets out to fulfill at all costs. It is this capriciousness and his desire to work in bronze that impels him to deface the tomb of the one he loved as the statute he built to commemorate the love of a “man who dieth not” is the only bronze that is left. In other words, the Artist wishes to deface the statute that was supposed to stay for all eternity on this tomb in the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever, to make a lasting bronze image of the ephemeral concept The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. Here we see the blurring of the lines between the ephemeral and the eternal worlds. An image of an eternal sorrow is sacrificed to create a lasting image of a temporary pleasure. It is also curious to note that the Artist is referred to as a man “that dieth not.” This may mean that he hasn’t died yet, but it could also mean that he is immortal. It is not clear to me at the moment what import this would have for our understanding of the poem but it could be a commentary on the enduring nature of art. 

Most importantly, however, in this poem, the reader is confronted with the malleability of bronze. The whole point of building statues, especially the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever, in bronze is that the statue will also last forever. We have an idea of bronze as a sturdy medium that endures. This understanding of bronze is completely reversed, however, when we see that its sturdy and enduring nature can be changed by throwing it into a fire. Before our very eyes, an enduring element is made ephemeral and malleable. Furthermore, it is in this dramatic climax that the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever becomes an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. The eternal is sacrificed, oxymoronically, for the ephemeral.

It should also be noted, however, that this is also a case in which pleasure is, quite literally, derived from sorrow. This is another example of the inversion of traditional value theories that is also present in other works by Wilde, most notably The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this poem in prose, however, this inversion is done in a very tangible and physical way. A bad thing is literally turned into a good thing. An image representing sorrow is turned into an image representing pleasure. This transformation also throws into questions our beliefs about sorrow, for example. Even though the sorrow was supposed to be eternal, it is sacrificed out of the blue. Is this supposed to map on to our lives? Are we also to understand that when we believe that we will never get over a loss or other traumatizing event, we will, in the future suddenly get over it? Is there the possibility, furthermore, that it could actually become pleasure? It is interesting to note that, at the end of the poem, the image that is cast in bronze and that is supposed to endure for all eternity is The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. But, then again, what type of assurance does that really give us? We never known when it will be thrown into the fire once more.


An Attempt at Understanding ‘The Artist’

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How exactly does a desire come upon an artist’s soul? The short poem in prose The Artist by Oscar Wilde suggests that it is an unconscious act—the external becomes internal, perhaps by mere chance or a stroke of luck during an inconspicuous evening. Desire immured the artist without previous notice. This also happens in Monsieur Venus after Raoule leaves the flower shop for the first time;  “The woman who vibrated within her saw nothing in Silvert but a beautiful instrument of pleasure she coveted and, in a latent state, that she already held fast in her imagination” (Rachilde 19). This unexpected desire drives Raoule to want to utilize Jacques as her bronze– to fashion images from his body, to bring about pleasure that endures for a moment. Another example of an instantaneous desire that seems to come from nowhere appears in Wilde’s Salome. Salome speaks to the prophet and a single desire comes to her mind, to kiss his mouth. Salome will even go as far as slaying him to realize her desire. In this way, Salome’s dance of the seven veils is the artistic act that fulfills her desire.  This desire is immortalized at the end of the play through John the Baptist’s death– he becomes an image of an irrational whim, of the pleasure Salome momentarily acquires from kissing him. “I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor fruits can appease my desire.” (Wilde 604) Similarly and quite literally,  the unexpected desire that went into the soul of Wilde’s artist was the desire to create an image of the The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment, and naturally the question “what is the pleasure that abideth for a moment?” arises. The Artist wants to immortalize that which arouses his fancy momentarily– he wants to transform the ephemeral into an eternal object of beauty– much like Jacques at the end of Monsieur Venus. “On the bed shaped like a seashell, guarded by an Eros of marble, rests a wax figure covered with transparent rubber skin.” (Rachilde 209) Jacques’s ephemeral beauty becomes an eternal object of admiration; Raoule as artist converts her momentary pleasure into an eternal wax image.

In Wilde’s The Artist, in order to transform the momentary into the eternal, the artist goes on to scourge for bronze, for apparently he could only think in bronze. Questions surge once more—what does it mean for an artist to only think in bronze? Why only bronze, why not clay, why not marble? The artist seems to be defined by a monotonous affinity to bronze, by both its rigidity and its molten mutability,  by a single target– a desire– that has already been struck before the artist launches his arrow. Ironically, Wilde’s artist cannot find any bronze for it had disappeared. Yet the text immediately contradicts itself and the artist finds bronze in the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever. There seems to be a distance between the artist and The Sorrow that endureth for Ever, almost as if he’d never encountered it but then the reader is told that this image had been made by the artist himself, and that he’d set it ‘on the tomb of the one thing he had loved in life.’  Salome is a more concrete example of this episode– she paradoxically shatters her eternal sorrow for momentary pleasure while simultaneously immortalizing both.  Her dance is a momentary pleasure that becomes eternal once John the Baptist is slain. As the artist looks to fashion a new image, The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment—The Sorrow that endureth for Ever  stands in the way. The bronze that the artist finds is a representation of the opposite of what he initially sought to fashion. He still holds the desire to fashion his new image, but he can only find bronze in the image he had previously made. So the artist decides to melt the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever, and the image is no longer—the sorrow did not endure for ever. The name of the image becomes a paradox—for The Sorrow that endureth forever is now nothing but molten bronze– it’s almost as if Wilde were revealing that the sorrow never was, and that it only abideth for a moment.  Yet out of this molten form he materializes his initial desire to create The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.  So now the artist’s only source of bronze, the only medium he can effectively think ‘in’, is the image of The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment—it is not the pleasure itself, but only its image. The image stands as a paradox against the concept it evokes, for the image is now more than just a moment– it is unfleeting unlike the pleasure it alludes to.And the artist fashioned this image from the image of the sorrow that endureth for ever, not from the sorrow itself. All the artist has and will ever have is the transmutable substance of his images. Bronze, a substance that has particular properties but that can be shaped to represent an image of anything else, is language for Wilde. 

This decadent thought, as evident through Wilde and Rachilde, is in line with symbolist thought, as well as Flaubertian thought. Language is the medium, the bronze from which images can be momentarily sculpted, from which limits can be exposed and surpassed. In Mallarme we read of the ‘Azur’ that incarcerates the poet in a struggle between representation and reality. Language is the medium through which all these insufficient allusions, evocations and concepts are revived. Without language there would be no bronze to invoke and describe the gap between matter and thought that is made evident through Mallarme’s poetry,  Wilde’s paradoxes, Rachilde’s gender inversions,  and Flaubert’s temptations. All of these authors wrote to unveil the boundaries of language while simultaneously surpassing them. It’s as if a state were to choose its own borders only to expand beyond them. Desire for the artist therefore eludes the concept– desire is a limit that is broken and defined simultaneously– desire is bronze that shifts from image to image through language.


Wilde and Pater’s understanding of art and decadence

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The quarter began with an excerpt from the conclusion of Walter Pater’s 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry and now ends with Oscar Wilde’s 1894 prose poem “The Artist.” Pater’s writing anticipates the decadent ethos, and Wilde’s poem gives form to it. The two, taken together, celebrate art as the purveyor of the transient, ecstatic experience on which decadent writers place so much value. The moment is privileged over the forever, the ecstatic over the moral, and the experience itself over the “fruit of experience” (Pater).

“To maintain […] ecstasy,” Pater writes, “is success in life.” Art, he says, should not be didactic or advance any moral claims. One does not correctly observe art in an act of self-improvement; the moment of observation is the only moment that matters to Pater. It is “simply for those moments’ sake” that art is observed (Pater). The Pater excerpt offers an illuminating distillation (if even there is one) of the decadent credo: the exaltation of the moment as transcendent and life-fulfilling. Des Esseintes’ purpose in retreating to his museum of fine taste is not, as might be concluded after a facile reading, the achievement of enlightenment or some higher morality. He is transfixed by the painting of Salome for what frisson of excitement it arouses in him–the moment of observation provides him with “never-ending ecstasy”  (Against Nature 44). It’s not erudition but the experience of encounter that Des Esseintes seeks. He has undertaken what Pater calls life’s “one desperate effort to see and touch.”

Wilde in “The Artist” offers a similar account of art’s value. The artist in question has created something that commemorates “the one thing that he had loved in life” (Wilde 900). This image, then, holds emotional importance to the creator. It is the “sign of the love of man that dieth not,” an artistic rendering of the most powerful human feeling (Wilde 900). A traditional understanding of art’s value might lead one to celebrate this creation as the most beautiful, the most important, of objects to the creator. It would seem to be his chef d’oeuvre, the first among all others in the hierarchy of his creations. But Wilde’s understanding of art’s value is, of course, not traditional, and the object is quite suddenly “set in a great furnace” and destroyed (Wilde 900). The bronze image in memorial of his deceased love, the sorrow that endureth for ever, has been destroyed to make possible the creation of the image of “the pleasure that abideth for a moment.” Nowhere clearer is the decadent disposition toward art evident. Value in art is found not in the forever, but in the moment. The image of his dead love might encourage the artist to recover, might provide him with a comforting souvenir of a companion lost, but that is of little importance: the value of the experience of the new image is greater. Wilde, it is evident, espouses Pater’s characterization of art’s value. It “comes to you,” Pater writes, “proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” The creation of the artist has value only for the experience it provides, and once this experience has passed, it might as well be cast into the furnace.

-BPB (547)

“Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis”: The Downfall of Oscar Wilde (Presentation)

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Lord Alfred Douglas: A Tainted Relationship

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas began in the Spring of 1892, and resulted in an ongoing affair which caused Wilde’s ruin (385). Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas was an amorous relationship which proved fidelity through economic rather than sexual means, as Douglas drove Wilde to ‘acquisition’ other young men. Wilde repeatedly paid Douglas’s debts and supported him, leading ultimately to bankruptcy.  This relationship formed the seed for the later obscenity trials which ruined Wilde.

May 23, 1895 Newspaper with a Headline describing the Verdict of the April Indecency trial. Alfred Taylor was another man who facilitated Wilde's relationships with multiple young men.
May 23, 1895 Newspaper Headline

Alfred’s father, John Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry, warred with his son through Wilde, blaming their gay relationship for ‘Bosie’s’ reckless behavior. Queensberry blamed Wilde for Douglas’s failures at Oxford University, and he quickly began to attack Wilde through letters and public acts  (404). Ultimately, he filed an obscenity charge in order to punish Wilde for his ‘indecent’ acts with Alfred. Queensberry charged Wilde with 15 counts of sodomy involving 12 boys, 10 of whom were named (443). Libel action suit was held on 3 April 1895, and Wilde ultimately lost, condemning him to two years hard labor.

Prison Life

Throughout the process of the trial and ultimate sentence, Wilde served time in five different prisons in the British system. During the trial, Wilde was held in Holloway and Newgate Prisons, before being transferred for his sentence to three different institutions: Pentonville, Wandsworth, and finally Reading Goal (Gagnier 340).

Reading Prison
Reading Goal Prison

Although conditions fluctuated slightly between these different systems, the prison theory behind them was largely the same: solitary confinement and unproductive hard labor. Wilde was kept in a 13x7x9 cell, and was forced to observe a very tightly regimented schedule: “6 a.m. clean cell;  7, porridge and brown bread; exercise for an hour, oakum picking until noon; dinner of bacon, beans, bread, potatoes (cold meat once a week); 12:30-6 oakum picking; tea or gruel and 8 ounces bread; 7 p.m. lights out…One letter could be sent and received per quarter, but letters were allowed for the ‘purpose of enabling [prisoners] to keep up a connection with their respectable friends and not that they may be kept informed of public events.’ No books were allowed the first month” (George Ives qtd. in Gagnier 340). The labor of oakum picking involved unrolling lengths

Male prisoners picking oakum in separate stalls at Holloway Prison 1862.
Male prisoners picking oakum in separate stalls at Holloway Prison 1862.

of rope to remove parts that were rotten or damaged. In De Profundis, Wilde writes of his prison experience, saying: “I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s finger-tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices which each day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate” (1020). The prison officials also ordered that Wilde was not to talk to any other prisoners, and that he be kept in solitary confinement in his cell. Solitary confinement ultimately led Wilde to fear insanity.

A Curious Publication: The Multiplicity of the ‘Original’

After his two petitions for a reduction of his sentence in July and November 1896 were denied at Reading Goal Prison, Wilde finally pled insanity and was ultimately given materials to write De Profundis  (Gagnier 441).

Petition to Reading Prison for release
Petition for release from Reading Prison

As Regenia Gagnier writes: “Wilde pleaded a fear of mental breakdown and decline of literary capability, and the physicians observed that his prose style was too lucid, orderly and polished to cause apprehension on those scores….Yet he was granted books and writing materials, that he “might be free to produce,” (Gagnier 341).

The lore surrounding Wilde’s writing of De Profundis follows that Wilde wrote the work on twenty folio sheets of blue prison paper, receiving one sheet a day. As the Governor of Reading Goal wrote, “Each sheet was carefully numbered before being issued and withdrawn each evening at locking and placed before me in the morning with the usual papers” (qtd. in Complete Letters 683). The process of writing one sheet a day has been questioned by many literary historians, who have written that several sheets appeared to be fair copies and that only two of the twenty sheets of writing ended with a complete sentence (683). This shows that prison guards may have been more lenient with Wilde, allowing him to write several sheets at a  time. Wilde wrote to his friend and former lover Robert Ross (referred to in De Profundis as Robbie) before his release, telling him to publish the letter.  The letter to Robbie, dated 1 April 1897, reads as follows:

“My dear Robbie, I send you, in a roll separate from this, my letter to Alfred Douglas, which I hope will arrive safe. As soon as you…have read it, I want you to have it carefully copied for me…I want you to be my literary executor after my death, and to have complete control over my plays, books and papers….When you have read the letter you will see the psychological explanation of a course of conduct that from the outside seems a combination of absolute idiocy with vulgar bravado….Of course from one point of view I know that on the day of my release I shall be merely passing form one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world seems to me no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me….As regards the mode of copying:…I think that the only thing to do is to be thoroughly modern, and to have it type-written…I wish the copy to be done not on tissue paper but on good paper such as is used for plays, and a wide rubricated margin should be left for corrections…it may be spoken of as the Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis. (780-782).”

Despite his wishes, prison officials rejected Wilde’s plea for his work to be sent to Robbie April 1,and refused to release the material until his own release.  Wilde therefore handed the letter personally to Ross after his release on May 19, 1897.

Out of this material, Robert Ross published an abridged version in 1905. This version of the document removed much of the importance of Lord Alfred Douglas from the letter, removing the first 28 pages of the work and instead focusing on Wilde’s description of his prison-life and hardship.   Ross later wrote that he abridged the document in order to match the public mood of the times, as he wrote that “Wilde’s name unfortunately did not bring very agreeable memories to English ears: his literary position, hardly recognized even in the zenith of his successful dramatic career, had come to be ignored by Mr. Ruskin’s countrymen, unable to separate the man and the artist” (“A Prefatory Dedication” iv).

1904 Publication of De Profundis by Robert Ross
1904 Publication of De Profundis by Robert Ross

In Ross’s subsequent  version in 1908, he included more of the original, claiming that public opinion was more responsive to a positive image of Wilde, as “English critics have shown themselves ready to estimate the writer, whether favorably or unfavorably, without emphasizing their natural prejudice against his later career” (vi). The introduction to the 1908 edition does not mention Alfred Douglas by name, and Ross simply states that “it is cast in the form of a letter to a friend not myself;” The identity of Lord Alfred Douglas was undoubtably hidden in order to lessen the continued memory of Wilde’s scandal.

Further reprints of the text came after a copy of the ‘original’ manuscript was freed from the British Library, by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland. This new version was  published 1949, and is the copy which the “Complete Works of Oscar Wilde” uses.  This text is based off a carbon copy of the original which Robert Ross made initially (Small 2). This version itself was proven to have many inaccuracies to the manuscript, which was later printed by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in 1962.
Link to a page of the manuscript:

Although all of these different versions differ, scholars have not determined whether any of them constitute an ‘original’ version of the work (2). Similarly, it is impossible to know whether the unedited original is the ‘accurate’ work due to its own inconsistencies. As J.M. Guy writes in “Wilde’s “De Profundis” and Book History: Mute Manuscripts,” “There is no agreement about what might be said to constitute the original print context of De Profundis, since few scholars will concede that the first extant “reproducible” work of that title, brought out in 1905 by Robert Ross and Methuen, has Wilde’s full authority. In this respect, the label “original” is most usually taken to refer to the manuscript held in the British Library and which, it can be argued, Wilde “intended” to make reproducible (if not exactly public) in some limited sense, even if, as we will see, there is no concrete evidence as to whether those intentions were carried out” (421-422).

Analysis and Discussion Questions

1. Wilde says in the first passage that Douglas “passed from Romance to Realism.” In De Profundis itself, Wilde mixes elements of realism, such as his prison conditions and his relationship with Douglas, with a more ‘Romantic’ tone as he evokes philosophical concepts such as art, imagination, sorrow, and Christ in order to come to terms with his prison experience. How should Wilde’s text be read, as a prison writing, love letter, autobiography, or philosophical writing? Should the biographical information included in the text be taken as fact, or is Alfred Douglas’s conduct more multidimensional, just as De Profundis is? Would it gain more critical attention if the work was split into  texts to reflect the fluctuations between letter to Alfred Douglas, commentary on prison life, and philosophical text?
2. Wilde is very particular about exact locations, time periods, and people’s names. Furthermore, he seems to describe things in a routine. For example, he writes on page 1009: “All this took place in the early part of November of the year before last…With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralyzing immobility of a life, every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and walk…according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula…A week later, I am transferred here. Three more months go over and my mother dies.” Do these specific periods of time of weeks and three months show Wilde’s changed perceptions based on prison time? Since Wilde often stayed at a particular prison for three months at a time, can we see other examples of prison life showing through the work? Are Wilde’s recollections of specific dates an indication of his struggle with sanity?
3. Wilde continually indicates the connection between himself as an Artist and his Art. Wilde claims that “an artist, and especially an artist as I am, one, that is to say, the quality of whose work depends on the intensification of personality, requires for the development of his art the companionship of ideas” (981). He also tells Douglas that “while you were with me you were the absolute ruin of my Art, and in allowing you to stand persistently between Art and myself I give to myself shame and blame in the fullest degree” (982-983). Can we separate art from Wilde the Artist? Wilde also states that he “was a man who stood symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age” (1017). Did Wilde’s personality almost become a piece of art on its own, as “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026)? Does this work show that for Wilde, life and art must coexist, and should we still examine Wilde’s works with a heavily biographical approach?
4. Wilde often talks about Imagination as the main way to cope with his psychological and physical taxations at prison. As he says on 1059, “Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of Thought. The Imagination can transcend them, and move in a sphere of ideal existences. Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it.” Does Wilde’s commitment to the imagination as a creative force relate to any other decadent ideals, such as the Truth of Masks? How do other characters in Decadent literature, such as Des Esseintes, construct their reality through imagination?
5. Wilde discusses Sorrow at many points in the text, specifically relating to his prison experience and to his shame over his downfall. In this regard he writes that “behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask. Truth in Art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself…Truth in Art is the unity of the thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit. For this reason there is no truth comparable to Sorrow” (1024). Does Wilde’s conception of Sorrow as ultimate Truth indicate a shift in Wilde’s philosophy from that of Masks and the truth of the surface, to a unification of ‘essential’ and ‘resemblance’?


Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Gagnier, Regenia. “”De Profundis as Epistola: In Carcere Et Vinculis”: A Materialist Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Autobiography.”      Criticism 26.4 (1984): 335-54.JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <>.

Guy, Josephine M. “Wilde’s “De Profundis” And Book History: Mute Manuscripts.” English Literature In Transition, 1880-1920 55.4 (2012): 419-440. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

Wilde, Oscar, and Merlin Holland. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

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Written by Nora