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Chapter 8

I saw a good deal of Wilde at that time--was it 1887 or 1888?--I
have no way of fixing the date except that I had published my
first book 'The Wanderings of Usheen' and that Wilde had not yet
published his 'Decay of Lying.' He had, before our first meeting,
reviewed my book and despite its vagueness of intention, and the
inexactness of its speech, praised without qualification; and what
was worth more than any review had talked about it, and now he
asked me to eat my Xmas dinner with him, believing, I imagine,
that I was alone in London.

He had just renounced his velveteen, and even those cuffs turned
backward over the sleeves, and had begun to dress very carefully
in the fashion of the moment. He lived in a little house at
Chelsea that the architect Godwin had decorated with an elegance
that owed something to Whistler. There was nothing mediaeval, nor
Pre-Raphaelite, no cupboard door with figures upon flat gold, no
peacock blue, no dark background. I remember vaguely a white
drawing room with Whistler etchings, 'let in' to white panels, and
a dining room all white: chairs, walls, mantlepiece, carpet,
except for a diamond-shaped piece of red cloth in the middle of
the table under a terra cotta statuette, and I think a red shaded
lamp hanging from the ceiling to a little above the statuette. It
was perhaps too perfect in its unity, his past of a few years
before had gone too completely, and I remember thinking that the
perfect harmony of his life there, with his beautiful wife and his
two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition.

He commended, & dispraised himself, during dinner by attributing
characteristics like his own to his country: 'We Irish are too
poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but
we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.' When dinner was
over he read me from the proofs of 'The Decay of Lying' and when
he came to the sentence: 'Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism
that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The
world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy,' I
said, 'Why do you change "sad" to "melancholy?"' He replied that
he wanted a full sound at the close of his sentence, and I thought
it no excuse and an example of the vague impressiveness that
spoilt his writing for me. Only when he spoke, or when his writing
was the mirror of his speech, or in some simple fairytale, had he
words exact enough to hold a subtle ear. He alarmed me, though not
as Henley did for I never left his house thinking myself fool or
dunce. He flattered the intellect of every man he liked; he made
me tell him long Irish stories and compared my art of story-telling
to Homer's; and once when he had described himself as writing in
the census paper 'age 19, profession genius, infirmity talent,'
the other guest, a young journalist fresh from Oxford or Cambridge,
said 'What should I have written?' and was told that it should
have been 'profession talent, infirmity genius.' When, however,
I called, wearing shoes a little too yellow--unblackened leather
had just become fashionable--I understood their extravagence when
I saw his eyes fixed upon them; an another day Wilde asked me to
tell his little boy a fairy story, and I had but got as far as
'Once upon a time there was a giant' when the little boy screamed
and ran out of the room. Wilde looked grave and I was plunged into
the shame of clumsiness that afflicts the young. When I asked for
some literary gossip for some provincial newspaper, that paid me
a few shillings a month, he explained very explicitly that writing
literary gossip was no job for a gentleman. Though to be compared
to Homer passed the time pleasantly, I had not been greatly
perturbed had he stopped me with 'Is it a long story?' as
Henley would certainly have done. I was abashed before him as wit
and man of the world alone. I remember that he deprecated the very
general belief in his success or his efficiency, and I think with
sincerity. One form of success had gone: he was no more the lion
of the season, and he had not discovered his gift for writing
comedy, yet I think I knew him at the happiest moment of his life.
No scandal had darkened his fame, his fame as a talker was growing
among his equals, & he seemed to live in the enjoyment of his own
spontaneity. One day he began: 'I have been inventing a Christian
heresy,' and he told a detailed story, in the style of some early
father, of how Christ recovered after the Crucifixion and,
escaping from the tomb, lived on for many years, the one man upon
earth who knew the falsehood of Christianity. Once St. Paul
visited his town and he alone in the carpenters' quarter did not
go to hear him preach. The other carpenters noticed that
henceforth, for some unknown reason, he kept his hands covered. A
few days afterwards I found Wilde, with smock frocks in various
colours spread out upon the floor in front of him, while a
missionary explained that he did not object to the heathen going
naked upon week days, but insisted upon clothes in church. He had
brought the smock frocks in a cab that the only art-critic whose
fame had reached Central Africa might select a colour; so Wilde
sat there weighing all with a conscious ecclesiastic solemnity.

William Butler Yeats

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