Oscar Wilde_ An Idler's Impression
An Idler's Impression
BROTHERS OF THE BOOK
f this first edition of Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression, by EdgarSaltus, there have been printed four hundred and seventy-four copies,and the type distributed. No second edition will be made. Theautographed copies were all subscribed for before publication.
The edition consists of
49 copies on Inomachi vellum, in full binding, each copyautographed by the author. Numbered from 1 to 49 inclusive.
100 copies on Inomachi vellum, in three-quarters binding.Numbered from 50 to 149 inclusive.
325 copies on Fabriano hand-made paper, in boards. Numberedfrom 150 to 474 inclusive.
This Copy is Number
Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression
ears ago, in a Paris club, one man said to another: "Well, what'sup?" The other shook a paper: "There is only one genius in England andthey have put him in jail."
One may wonder though whether it were their doing, or even Wilde's,that put him there. One may wonder whether it were not the high fateswho so gratified him in order that, from his purgatory, he might riseto a life more evolved. But that view is perhaps obvious. Wildehimself, who was the least mystic of men, accepted it. In the "DeProfundis," after weighing his disasters, he said: "Of these things Iam not yet worthy."
The genuflexion has been called a pose. It may have been. Even so, itis perhaps better to kneel, though it be in the gallery, than to stoopat nothing, and Wilde, who had stood very high, bent very low. He sawthat there is one thing greater than greatness and that is humility.
Yet though he saw it, it is presumable that he forgot it. It ispresumable that the grace which was his in prison departed in Paris.On the other hand it may not have. There are no human scales for anysoul.
It was at Delmonico's, shortly after he told our local Customs that hehad nothing to declare but genius, that I first met him. He wasdressed like a mountebank. Without, at the entrance, a crowd hadcollected. In the restaurant people stood up and stared. Wilde wasbeautifully unmoved. He was talking, at first about nothing whatever,which is always an interesting topic, then about "Vera," a play of hisfor which a local manager had offered him an advance, five thousanddollars I think, "mere starvation wages," as he put it, and he went onto say that the manager wanted him to make certain changes in it. Hepaused and added: "But who am I to tamper with a masterpiece?"—ajest which afterward he was too generous to hoard.
Later, in London, I saw him again. In appearance and mode of life hehad become entirely conventional. The long hair, the knee-breeches,the lilies, the velvet, all the mountebank trappings had gone. He wasmarried, he was a father, and in his house in Tite street he seemed abit bourgeois. Of that he may have been conscious. I remember one ofhis children running and calling at him: "My good papa!" and Iremember Wilde patting the boy and saying: "Don't call me that, itsounds so respectable."
In Tite street I had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Oscar, who asked meto write something in an album. I have always hated albumenous poetryand, as I turned the pages in search of possible inspiration, Ihappened on this: From a poet to a poem. Robert Browning.
Poets exaggerate and why should they not? They have been found, too,with their hands in other people's paragraphs. Wilde helped himself tothat line which he put in a sonnet to this lady, who had blue eyes,fair hair, chapped lips, and a look of constant bewilderment.
As for that, Oscar was sufficiently bewildering. He talked infinitelybetter than he wrote, and on no topic, no matter what, could he talkas other mortals must. Once only I heard of him uttering a platitudeand from any one else that platitude would have been a paradox. Heexuded wit and waded in it with a serenity that was disconcerting.
It was on this abnormal serenity and on his equally abnormalbrilliance that he relied to defeat the prosecution. "I have all thecriminal classes with me," he announced, and that was his oneplatitude, a banality that contrived to be tragic. Then headlong downthe stair of life he fell.
Hell he had long since summarised as the union of souls without bodiesto bodies without souls. There are worse definitions than this whichyears later I recalled when, through a curious forethought of fate, hewas taken, en route to the cemetery, through the Porte de l'Enfer.
But in Tite street, at this time, and in Regent street where heoccasionally dined, he was gentle, wholesome, and joyous; a man whopaid compliments because, as he put it, he could pay nothing else. Hehad been caricatured: the caricatures had ceased. People had turned tolook: they looked no longer. He was forgiven and, what is worse,forgotten. Yet that tiger, his destiny, was but sharpening its claws.
At an inn where Gautier dined, the epigrams were so demoralising thata waiter became insane. Similarly in the Regent street restaurant itwas reported, perhaps falsely, that a waiter had also lost his reason.But Wilde, though a three decanter man, always preserved his own. Hepreserved, too, his courtesy which was invariable. The most venomousthing that he ever said of anyone was that he was a tedious person,and the only time he ever rebuked anybody was at the conclusion of oneof those after-dinner stories which some host or other interrupted byrising and saying: "Shall we continue the conversation in thedrawing-room?"
But I am in error. That was not his only rebuke. On one occasion Idrove with him to Tite street. An hour previous he had executed avariation on the "Si j'étais roi." "If I were king," he had sung, "Iwould sit in a great hall and paint on green ivory and when myministers came and told me that the people were starving, I wouldcontinue to paint on green ivory and say: 'Let them starve.'"
The aria was rendered in the rooms of Francis Hope, a young man wholater married and divorced May Yohe, but who at the time showed anabsurd interest in stocks. Someone else entered and Hope asked whatwas new in the City. "Money is very tight," came the reply. "Ah,yes," Wilde cut in. "And of a tightness that has been felt even inTite street. Believe me, I passed the forenoon at the British Museumlooking at a gold-piece in a case."
Afterward we drove to Chelsea. It was a vile night, bleak and bitter.On alighting, a man came up to me. He wore a short jacket which heopened. From neck to waist he was bare. I gave him a shilling. Thencame the rebuke. With entire simplicity Wilde took off his overcoatand put it about the man.
But the simplicity seemed to me too Hugoesque and I said: "Why didn'tyou ask him in to dinner?"
Wilde gestured. "Dinner is not a feast, it is a ceremony."
Subsequently that ceremony must have been contemplated, for Mrs. Wildewas kind enough to invite me. The invitation reached me sometime inadvance and I took it of course that there would be other guests. Buton the appointed evening, or what I thought was the appointedevening, when I reached this house—on which Oscar objected to payingtaxes because, as he told the astonished assessors, he was so seldomat home—when I reached it, it seemed to me that I must be the onlyguest. Then, presently, in the dreary drawing-room, Oscar appeared."This is delightful of you," he told me. "I have been late for dinnera half hour, again a whole hour; you are late an entire week. That iswhat I call originality."
I put a bold face on it. "Come to my shop," I said, "and have dinnerwith me. Though," I added, "I don't know what I can give you."
"Oh, anything," Wilde replied. "Anything, no matter what. I have thesimplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best."
He was not boasting. One evening he dined on his "Sphinx."Subsequently I supped with him on "Salome."
That was in the Regent street restaurant where, apropos of nothing, orrather with what to me at the time was curious irrelevance, Oscar,while tossing off glass after glass of liquor, spoke of Phémé, agoddess rare even in mythology, who, after appearing twice in Homer,flashed through a verse of Hesiod and vanished behind a page ofHerodotos. In telling of her, suddenly his eyes lifted, his mouthcontracted, a spasm of pain—or was it dread?—had gripped him. Amoment only. His face relaxed. It had gone.
I have since wondered, could he have evoked the goddess then? ForPhémé typified what modern occultism terms the impact—the premonitionthat surges and warns. It was Wilde's fate to die three times—to diein the dock, to die in prison, to die all along the boulevards ofParis. Often since I have wondered could the goddess then have beenlifting, however slightly, some fringe of the crimson curtain, behindwhich, in all its horror, his destiny crouched. If so, he braved it.
I had looked away. I looked again. Before me was a fat pauper, floridand over-dressed, who, in the voice of an immortal, was reading thefantasies of the damned. In his hand was a manuscript, and we weresupping on "Salome."
As the banquet proceeded, I experienced that sense of sacred terrorwhich his friends, the Greeks, knew so well. For this thing could havebeen conceived only by genius wedded to insanity and, at the end, whenthe tetrarch, rising and bundling his robes about him, cries: "Killthat woman!" the mysterious divinity whom the poet may have evoked,deigned perhaps to visit me. For, as I applauded, I shuddered, andtold him that I had.
Indifferently he nodded and, assimilating Hugo with superb unconcern,threw out: "It is only the shudder that counts."
That was long before the crash. After it, Mrs. Wilde said that he wasmad and had been for three years, "quite mad" as the poor womanexpressed it.
It may be that she was right. St. George, I believe, fought a dragonwith a spear. Whether or not he killed the brute I have forgotten.But Wilde fought poverty, which is perhaps more brutal, with a pen.The fight, if indolent, was protracted. Then, abruptly, his inkstandbecame a Vesuvius of gold. London that had laughed at him, laughedwith him and laughed colossally. A penny-a-liner was famous. Theinternational hurdle-race of the stage had been won in a canter andwon by a hack. A sub-editor was top of the heap.
The ascent was perhaps too rapid. The spiderous Fates that sit andspin are jealous of sudden success. It may be that Mrs. Wilde wasright. In any event, for some time before the crash he saw few of hisformer friends. After his release few of his former friends saw him.But personally, if I may refer to myself, I am not near sighted. I sawhim in Paris, saw too, and to my regret, that he looked like a drunkencoachman, and told him how greatly I admired the "Ballad,"—that poemwhich tells of his life, or rather of his death, in jail. Halfcovering his mouth with his hand, he laughed and said: "It does notseem to me sufficiently vécu."
Before the enormity of that I fell back. But at once he became morehuman. He complained that even the opiate of work was denied him,since no one would handle his wares.
The Athenians, who lived surrounded by statues, learned from them thevalue of silence, the mystery that it lends to beauty, in particularthe dignity that it gives to grief. In their tragedies any victim ofdestiny is as though stricken dumb. Wilde knew that, he kneweverything, in addition to being a thorough Hellenist. None the lesshe told of his fate. It was human, therefore terrible, but it was notthe tragic muse. It was merely a tragedy of letters.
Letters, yes, but lower case. Wilde was a third rate poet whooccasionally rose to the second class but not once to the first. Proseis more difficult than verse and in it he is rather sloppy. In spiteof which, or perhaps precisely on that account, he called himselflord of language. Well, why not, if he wanted to? Besides,