The Vital Importance of Wilde’s
CREA (Centre de recherches anglophones)
Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense
After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the
second, you seem them as they are not. Finally you see things as they
really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.
(“Reminiscences” by Ada Leverson)
M. Zola’s characters … have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues.
The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what
happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and
imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with the
account of the doings of the lower orders. (“The Decay of Lying”)
Karl Beckson, 1996.
Il n’y a qu’une sorte d’amour, mais il y en a mille différentes copies.
Nos vertus ne sont, le plus souvent, que des vices déguisés.
“everyone was repeating his ‘mots’”. Ada Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx
“Every writer of any individuality has, so to speak, his trademark; but
there are times when the output of Mr Wilde’s epigram factory
threatens to become all trademark and no substance. » (William Archer
on An Ideal Husband, Pall Mall Budget 10 January 1895)
“his one-liners had the perfect pitch and promise of a struck tuning-fork,
but they issued from an imagination in which far deeper harmonies
were latent and constantly in search of more resonant forms of
expression.” Seamus Heaney
Philip E. Smith
II and Michael
Portrait of the
Mind in the
You can’t make a fool of a person unless he is a fool
To enter married life with a man incapable of deception
would augur ill for a happy future.
A woman should know nothing before marriage, and
I have never sown wild oats : I have planted a few
“Leading a double life is the only proper
preparation for marriage-”
“I don’t know any Duchess who could
be described as the thin edge of any
Beauty “Rien n’est vrai que le beau.”
La beauté est parfaite
La beauté peut toute chose
La beauté est la seule chose
au monde qui n’existe pas a demi [sic]
“dans la vie morale il est beau de quelquefois faire naufrage”
Joseph de La Font Le Naufrage ou la pompe funèbre de Crispin
Si vous voulez, malgré l'orage,
Voguer encore en ce beau jour,
Que ce soit sur la mer d'Amour :
Il est beau d'y faire naufrage.
L'Amour en quittant le rivage,
Promet toujours un heureux sort ;
Avec lui, jusque dans le port,
Il est beau de faire naufrage.
Lord Henry The Picture of Dorian Gray (chapter 17) ‘Yesterday I cut an
orchid, for my button-hole. It was a marvellous spotted thing, as effective
as the seven deadly sins.’
Algernon. I never have any appetiteunless I have a buttonholefirst.
“Ones [sic] buttonhole may be allowed to be romantic in feeling, but
ones [sic] necktie should be distinctly classical both in style and
treatment.” (manuscript note)
“The buttonhole in particular, the only
socially acceptable form of male floral
adornment, became a charged site in
Wilde’s and the fin de siècle’s homoerotic
imagery. Associated with dandies,
Aesthetes and Decadents, the exotic
boutonnière was a sign of questionable
masculinity. The insertion of flowers into
eyelets, furthermore, functioned as a
symbol of and precursor to sexual activity.”
Alison Syme, A Touch of Blossom : John
Singer Sargent and the Queer Flora of Fin-
Sentiment is all very well for the button-hole. But the essential thing for a necktie is style. A well-tied tie is
the first serious step in life”. Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance, act 3.
An Ideal husband Beginning of Act 3
Stage directions : LORD GORING enters in evening dress with a buttonhole. […]
LORD GORING Got my second buttonhole for me, Phipps?
PHIPPS Yes, my lord.
[Takes his hat, cane, and cape, and presents new buttonhole on salver.]
LORD GORING Rather distinguished thing, Phipps. I am the only person of the smallest importance in
London at present who wears a buttonhole.
PHIPPS Yes, my lord. I have observed that,
LORD GORING [Taking out old buttonhole.] You see, Phipps, Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is
unfashionable is what other people wear.
A really well-made buttonhole is the only link between Art and Nature.
“Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of Young” The Chameleon Oxford, December 1894
Lord Henry : “ I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who could call a
spade a spade should be compelled to use one. It is the only thing he is fit for."
“The Decay of Lying” (1891).
“If […] we regard Nature as the collection of phenomena external to man,
people only discover in her what they bring to her. She has no suggestions of
her own. Wordsworth went to the lakes, but he was never a lake poet. He
found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there. He went moralising
about the district, but his good work was produced when he returned, not to
Nature but to poetry. Poetry gave him ‘Laodamia,’ and the fine sonnets, and
the great Ode, such as it is. Nature gave him ‘Martha Ray’ and ‘Peter Bell,’
and the address to Mr. Wilkinson’s spade.”
To The Spade of A Friend by William Wordsworth
Composed while we were labouring together in his Pleasure-
Spade! with which Wilkinson hath till'd his Lands,
And shap'd these pleasant walks by Eamont's side,
Thou art a tool of honour in my hands;
I press thee through the yielding soil with pride.
Who shall inherit Thee when Death hath laid
Low in the darksome Cell thine own dear Lord?
That Man will have a trophy, humble, Spade!
More noble than the noblest Warrior's sword.
With Thee he will not dread a toilsome day,
His powerful Servant, his inspiring Mate!
And, when thou art past service, worn away,
Thee a surviving soul shall consecrate.
Whenever the necessities of life are dearer/ cheaper than the
luxuries of life the community becomes uncivilized. Bread should
be always dearer than flowers.
“I love the theatre ; it’s so much more real than
“The world is a stage but the play is badly cast”
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime
Il est bien plus intelligent de dire des sottises que
d’en écouter, c’est également beaucoup plus rare.
It is much cleverer to talk nonsense than to
listen to it, my dear fellow, and a much rarer
thing too.” Algernon 4 act version
“[…] the literary fact of the matter is that the axe which is
keenest, the one which is still most capable of shattering the
surfaces of convention, is […] the hard-edged, unpathetic
prose that Wilde created […] in dramas like The Importance of
Being Earnest. His heady paradoxes, his over-the-topness at
knocking the bottom out of things, the rightness of his
wrongfooting, all that high-wire word-play, all that freedom to
affront and to exult in his uniqueness - that was Wilde’s true
path to solidarity. The lighter his touch, the more devastating
his effect. When he walked on air, he was on solid ground.”