It is natural for anyone – be they devotee, scholar, aesthete – to turn to an artist’s work to get some sense of the inner man. Every poem, every painting, any work of prose all spring from some part of the creator, and are aspects of himself.
This practice, however, is also fraught with peril. Where does the inner man end and poetic license begin? Are we to judge Shakespeare, for instance, by the violence of Titus Andronicus and the bleak ending of Romeo and Juliet? Or by the soaring language and mighty imagination of The Tempest? Was Zola a degenerate for showing the world Nana, or a great humanist? And where do we find the real man in an imagination as protean as Oscar Wilde? Is the real Wilde the man behind The Picture of Dorian Gray? Or the moralizing comedian of An Ideal Husband? Or the blood-drenched decadent of Salome?
In the final analysis, we all must create the image of the artist in our mind’s eye, using both the existing work and our own empathy in interpreting it. Each portrait reveals, as Wilde would say, both the artist and the sitter; to that, I would add it reveals the viewer, as well.
To me, the work which best explains Wilde the man are his two volumes of fairy tales. These stories are only ostensibly for children; in reality, they are as close to moralizing as the great artist could get and still remain faithful to his own credo of art for art’s sake. They also bring into stark relief Wilde’s generosity of spirit, his profoundly loving nature, his kindness and his love of language.
Wilde’s prose is often ornate and bejeweled, and this is certainly true in his fairy stories. Here is more of The Happy Prince:
All the next day he sat on the Prince’s shoulder, and told him stories of what he had seen in strange lands. He told him of the red ibises, who stand in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch gold-fish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.
“Dear little Swallow,” said the Prince, “you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there.”
So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates.
There is no ugliness in Wilde’s interior world; or, if there is, it is a cardinal sin. To Wilde, beauty was both visible and invisible; though for him, like Gautier, “the visible world existed,” the invisible world was no less real. Most of his stories for children are warnings against ugliness of spirit or demonstrations that the Philistine is unworthy of the artist.
Artist Charles Robinson, like Wilde, was incapable of ugliness. The stunning watercolor above shows the beggars near the gates of a beautiful house, wherein the rich make merry. Many Victorian-era moralists would have made a grittier and more textured image than this: imagine, for instance, what Sir Luke Fildes would have done with this passage. But Robinson knew what Wilde meant when he wrote you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Wilde, who would come to know personal misery, also saw its exalted beauty, because misery is one of the great and inescapable mysteries of our existence.
In Robinson’s illustration, the beggars are huddled in a subdued blue, yellow and ochre light. The faces are indistinct, but the eyes are hidden in shadow and the noses peek out from within hidden faces. The figures are drawn in aspects of both supplication and adoration, looking as much like holy pilgrims as hungry people.
Color is also denied these unfortunates. A garland of blossoms streaks behind the figures, and the greenery and the great house as so set in the background as to be another world. The great pillar that supports the garland also serves to reinforce the distance between the people in the picture and the warm, comforting background.
Robinson does not rely upon the stylizations of Art Nouveaux here, opting instead for a lyrical realism. It is an image of great sadness and even greater beauty which is, after all, the point of Wilde’s story.