Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Oscar Wilde Liked Books

Books were "the single greatest influence" on Oscar Wilde's life, according to a new biography by Thomas Wright.  Really?  And of how many writers, pray tell, is that statement not true?

Apart from this Dept. of No Surprise feature, the bio, as reviewed by Brenda Maddox, sounds quite good.  Wright has sought out the auction record of Wilde's personal library, as well as the list of books he requested during his imprisonment.  There are a lot of them, and close study will no doubt give considerable insight into his art.  We once saw a list of Hemingway's library, and were fascinated in much the same way.  (Oh, and have we ever shared our theory that Hem was way gayer than Oscar?)

One terrible fact which jumps out is that Wilde's first prison, Pentonville, prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another, and given virtually no access to books.  Hard as it must have been for Wilde, imagine the loss to his fellow prisoners -- to have among them the most brilliant conversationalist of the age, and no chance of conversation to sparkle in their darkness.  

But this same fact sheds light on Wilde's best poem.  The only books permitted in Pentonville were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal.  Reading this, we snapped our fingers and muttered, "Of course."  What more than a hymnal informs the strong rhythms and plain diction of Ballad of Reading Gaol?  

One does not think of Wilde as a hymn-writer, of course.  But consider T.S. Eliot's description of Kipling's famous Recessional:  

... it is one of the poems in which something breaks through from a deeper level than that of the mind of the conscious observer of political and social affairs -- something which has the true prophetic inspiration.

That is true of Reading Gaol, as of little else that Wilde ever wrote.  (His poetry, like Kipling's, consists mostly of what Eliot calls "verse," struggling from the effort not to precede the word with "mere").    In both poems, the authors speak with a new moral authority, which comes directly from what readers already know about their lives. Kipling, the bard of Empire, turns at a crucial moment of history call for humility and repentance.  And Wilde writes about love, sin, suffering and redemption.

Anyway, the book sounds good.  But we also need to point out that Mr Wright himself sounds a bit creepy.  By 15, he had read Dorian Grey twenty times; as an adult, he wanted not only to read all the books that Wilde read, but to touch Wilde's own copies.  Ick.  But then, what would a book on Wilde be without a touch of compulsive sensuality?

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