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Chapter 9

Of late years I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family
history. His father, was a friend or acquaintance of my father's
father and among my family traditions there is an old Dublin
riddle: 'Why are Sir William Wilde's nails so black?' Answer,
'Because he has scratched himself.' And there is an old story
still current in Dublin of Lady Wilde saying to a servant. 'Why do
you put the plates on the coal-scuttle? What are the chairs meant
for?' They were famous people and there are many like stories, and
even a horrible folk story, the invention of some Connaught
peasant, that tells how Sir William Wilde took out the eyes of
some men, who had come to consult him as an oculist, and laid them
upon a plate, intending to replace them in a moment, and how the
eyes were eaten by a cat. As a certain friend of mine, who has
made a prolonged study of the nature of cats, said when he first
heard the tale, 'Catslove eyes.' The Wilde family was clearly of
the sort that fed the imagination of Charles Lever, dirty, untidy,
daring, and what Charles Lever, who loved more normal activities,
might not have valued so highly, very imaginative and learned.
Lady Wilde, who when I knew her received her friends with blinds
drawn and shutters closed that none might see her withered face,
longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self mockery,
for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance. She
lived near her son in level Chelsea, but I have heard her say, 'I
want to live on some high place, Primrose Hill or Highgate,
because I was an eagle in my youth.' I think her son lived with no
self mockery at all an imaginary life; perpetually performed a
play which was in all things the opposite of all that he had known
in childhood and early youth; never put off completely his wonder
at opening his eyes every morning on his own beautiful house, and
in remembering that he had dined yesterday with a duchess and that
he delighted in Flaubert and Pater, read Homer in the original and
not as a school-master reads him for the grammar. I think, too,
that because of all that half-civilized blood in his veins, he
could not endure the sedentary toil of creative art and so
remained a man of action, exaggerating, for the sake of immediate
effect, every trick learned from his masters, turning their easel
painting into painted scenes. He was a parvenu, but a parvenu
whose whole bearing proved that if he did dedicate every story in
'The House of Pomegranates' to a lady of title, it was but to show
that he was Jack and the social ladder his pantomime beanstalk.
"Did you ever hear him say 'Marquess of Dimmesdale'?" a friend of
his once asked me. "He does not say 'the Duke of York' with any

He told me once that he had been offered a safe seat in Parliament
and, had he accepted, he might have had a career like that of
Beaconsfield, whose early style resembles his, being meant for
crowds, for excitement, for hurried decisions, for immediate
triumphs. Such men get their sincerity, if at all, from the
contact of events; the dinner table was Wilde's event and made him
the greatest talker of his time, and his plays and dialogues have
what merit they possess from being now an imitation, now a record,
of his talk. Even in those days I would often defend him by saying
that his very admiration for his predecessors in poetry, for
Browning, for Swinburne and Rossetti, in their first vogue while
he was a very young man, made any success seem impossible that
could satisfy his immense ambition: never but once before had the
artist seemed so great, never had the work of art seemed so
difficult. I would then compare him with Benvenuto Cellini who,
coming after Michael Angelo, found nothing left to do so
satisfactory as to turn bravo and assassinate the man who broke
Michael Angelo's nose.

William Butler Yeats

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