Sunday, December 10, 2017

BOOK: John Cooper, "Oscar Wilde on Dress"

John Cooper: Oscar Wilde on Dress. Philadelphia: CSM Press, 2013. 0989532704. x + 197 pp.

I first became aware of this book while writing my post about Vols. 6 and 7 of Wilde's collected works, which contain his journalism. This included several essays on the subject of dress and especially on dress reform; these drew my attention again to what is probably Wilde's most famous epigram on this subject, namely the remark that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.

While trying to find out where exactly he used it for the first time, I came upon John Cooper's very interesting web page about the origins of this epigram: it emerged from Wilde's various lectures on dress which he held during 1883 and 1884, but his first use of it in print was in The Philosophy of Dress, a little-known essay that he published in an American newspaper, the New-York Daily Tribune, in 1885. (Cooper discusses the various versions of this epigram on pp. 103–5. The version with “intolerable”, which seems to be the most widely known, is from an 1887 column in the Woman's World; the 1885 essay has “unbearable” instead.)

In fact that essay was so little known that it hadn't been included in previous bibliographies and collections of Wilde's journalism, and would even have been missing from the new Oxford edition of Wilde's works if Cooper hadn't pointed it out to its editors (Cooper p. 100; Vol. 6 p. viii). The website also mentioned that Cooper had published an entire book containing this essay, various other related articles and letters, along with extensive commentaries and annotations; this sounded intriguing enough that, in my enthusiasm to not miss any of Wilde's works, I decided to buy and read this book as well.

To be honest, my impression at the time was that The Philosophy of Dress is missing from the Oxford edition altogether, which was another reason for me to get Cooper's book; but this was just due to my carelessness and lack of concentration, for by that time I had already read Vol. 7 of the Collected Works, where this essay is included as Appendix II. (I find it interesting that it's included as an appendix and not in the main part of the book; perhaps the editors became aware of it so late in the process that inserting it at the correct chronological point in the book would require them to make too many modifications elsewhere.)

In any case, I don't in the least regret buying and reading this book; although the Philosophy of Dress is included in the Collected Works, much of the related correspondence by other people isn't, and besides this book contains lots and lots of interesting observations by Mr Cooper himself. Another advantage of this book is that it includes a generous amount of illustrations. For example, Wilde's 1884 article “More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform”, in which he answers the critics of his earlier essays on dress, included two illustrations which Cooper prints next to the article, just where you would expect them (pp. 179, 182); but in the Collected Works, they aren't included with the article itself, and the editors' commentaries just mention that the original newspaper did include illustrations (Vol. 6, p. 232); as it turns out (but the commentaries don't mention this), those illustrations are in fact included in Vol. 6, but not where you would expect them — they are on p. xvii of the Introduction.

I found Cooper's book very interesting even though I'm not otherwise particularly interested in dress, nor for that matter in Wilde's writing about it. There's a very nice introductory chapter about the context in which Wilde wrote his essays on dress; this emerged from Wilde's early career as a lecturer, and dress was one of his most successful and popular lecturing topics in 1883–4 (pp. 65–6). Wilde took a keen interest in the ‘dress reform’ movement of the time (his soon-to-be wife, Constance Lloyd, was also active in it), and Cooper's book describes several other people active in that movement, showing how Wilde was influenced by their ideas (pp. 30–63). By the way, I was also extremely impressed by Cooper's ability to dig up highly obscure newspaper articles about Wilde; on p. 39, he even cites a New Zealand newspaper (called Hawke's Bay Herald)!

Cooper also argues that Wilde's essays on dress mark an important point of transition in his career as a writer: previously he had mostly worked as a lecturer and published only a handful of articles, mostly reviews, whereas now he began to be taken more seriously as a writer and was increasingly able to publish original essays and articles under his own name (pp. 72–5, 112).

There's also an interesting section on the status of copyright in the journalism of Wilde's time (pp. 95–101). The idea of copyright was hardly thought to apply to newspapers, and they reprinted each other's articles quite shamelessly. In the mid-1880s there was an increased interest in enforcing copyright in that area as well, and Wilde's Philosophy of Dress included a copyright notice when it was published in 1885. This seems to have successfully deterred other newspapers from reprinting it, but it may have also inadvertently helped ensure that the essay was almost completely forgotten in the long term.

The last part of the book consists of about a dozen other letters-to-the-editor and essays, a few by Wilde but mostly by other people, discussing Wilde's ideas on fashion and dress reform. Most of this was published in 1884 and was triggered by reports of Wilde's lectures on dress. I found this quite interesting as most of the non-Wilde material was new to me; the editors of the Collected Works included a summary of this debate in their comments (Vol. 6, pp. 228–33), but not the complete text of the letters.

So all in all, this was a very interesting book and I'm definitely glad to have read it. I just have a few minor complaints about it: it's meant to be a kind of bibliophile edition, and is thus relatively expensive ($125; but admittedly you can get the same content as an e-book for $10); the fore-edge is untrimmed, which I find annoying (but I suppose that for some people it would be a plus, especially for a hand-bound book like this one); and worst of all, it's set in an odd sans-serif font which I don't like one bit. What sort of person would set an entire book in sans-serif anyway?


The Philosophy of Dress includes several other typically Wildean epigrams. “The French milliners consider that women are created specially for them by Providence, in order to display their elaborate and expensive wares.” (Pp. 83–4.) And: “All truths are perfectly obvious once one sees them. The only thing is to see them.” (P. 84.) And also: “Catharine de Medicis, High-Priestess of poison and petticoats, invented a corset which may be regarded as the climax of a career of crime.” (P. 88.)

The context of the ‘every six months’ epigram in that essay is also illustrative: “Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law. Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months! It is quite clear that were it beautiful and rational we would not alter anything that combined those two rare qualities.” (P. 87.) But I'm not sure if I completely agree with Wilde here; people might get bored of something after a while even if it was beautiful and not ugly to begin with.

A fine epigram from Wilde's 1884 article, “More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform”: “The word practical is nearly always the last refuge of the uncivilized.” (P. 183.) There seems to be a minor genre of these ‘last refuge’ epigrams; the one you usually hear (and which, I imagine, started the whole thing) is “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, which seems to be from Dr. Johnson. Wilde himself has another one: “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative” (from “The Relation of Dress to Art”, 1885; p. 188 in this book).

Some of the letters to the editor in the last part of the book are very funny. There's a hilariously exasperated letter from “an Old Sailor”, who seems to be an epitome of Victorian prudishness: “Has it occurred to your readers that there is any impropriety, not to say indelicacy, in discussing the arrangement of women's petticoats in the public press? In the days of my youth we were taught to regard woman's dress as a sacred mystery; [. . .] We do not want to know how their lower rigging is placed and set up; that surely is their own business, and the discussion of it by men in the public press is disrespectful and impertinent.” (P. 159.)

I thought that the familiar tales of how the Victorians regarded even the sight of an ankle as indecent were exaggerations, but one of the letters here seems to confirm it: the writer complains that women “now, owing to their absurd tied skirts, display from their lounging chairs an amount of ankle that would have scandalized our grandmothers, whose feet were never seen when sitting down.” (P. 175.)

There's an interesting article from the Life magazine on p. 176, illustrating how Wilde was an early example of the modern type of celebrity: “Every time he cuts his hair, for instance, the Tribune has a cablegram to that effect followed by a two column letter on the subject a week or so later.”


  • Violet Wyndham: The Sphinx and her circle: a biographical sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 (A. Deutsch, 1963). Cited here on p. 127.

Labels: , , ,

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Journalism"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 6: Journalism Part I. Ed. by John Stokes and Mark W. Turner. Oxford University Press, 2013. 019811964X. lxiii + 430 pp.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 7: Journalism Part II. Ed. by John Stokes and Mark W. Turner. Oxford University Press, 2013. 0198119631. xii + 622 pp.

Wilde's journalism is that part of his work with which I have until now been more or less completely unfamiliar. I was vaguely aware that he used to do some work of that sort — I read a couple biographies of Wilde, and they mentioned that he used to write various reviews and short essays for magazines, and he even worked as the editor of a women's magazine for a few years. But I never actually read any of his journalism, unless you include essays such as those in Intentions, which are based on things that he initially published in magazines.

Of course, in a way this is hardly surprising; newspaper articles, reviews and the like are usually considered to be very ephemeral things and don't tend to get reprinted much. Judging by the introductory material in this volume, the only previous publication of Wilde's journalism in book form was in Robert Ross's 1908 edition of Wilde's collected works, and even that edition doesn't contain all of the pieces that appear in the present two volumes.

These two volumes contain 168 short pieces, on average about three pages long; most of them are reviews of books and theatre performances, some also of art exhibitions, and the rest are short essays on various other subjects. I've found this to be the sort of stuff that gets boring in large quantities, but can be quite interesting if you read it in small amounts at a time. Wilde's writing here has many of the same qualities that make his fiction such a delight to read, with plenty of witty epigrams and aphorisms, generous amounts of sarcasm, and the like. Occasionally you encounter ideas and expressions that Wilde would later re-use in some bit of fiction, where they became better known (see a few examples below).

Probably my favorite part of the collection were Wilde's book reviews; some of the books he reviewed sound interesting enough that I'm tempted to want to read them myself. Some of his reviews are delightfully sarcastic, but often he also strikes me as being admirably charitable, and makes an effort to point out the good things in a book even if as a whole he didn't like it.

I was also impressed by the editors' comments at the end of the book, which must have taken an enormous amount of effort. For example, Wilde's book reviews often quote short bits of text from the books he reviewed; but just as often, Wilde merely paraphrases something from the book without specifically indicating that he's doing so. The editors seem to have gone very carefully through all the books that Wilde had reviewed, and they mercilessly hunted down all such quotations and paraphrases, and provided page references in their notes at the end of this volume.

Similarly, Wilde's theatrical reviews often mention the names of actors that appeared in that particular performance, and the editors always make an effort to provide some more information about those actors in the notes — at least their year of birth and death, although in some cases they weren't able to find any such information about this or that obscure actor.

It was also interesting to read the notes to Wilde's reviews of art exhibitions. The editors tried to trace the present whereabouts of the paintings that Wilde mentions in his reviews, and sadly it often turns out that some of these paintings have been lost by now, or at least their whereabouts are now unknown.

The editors' introduction contains among other things an interesting discussion on the difficulties of discovering the newspaper contributions of a particular author, since many articles in 19th-century newspapers weren't signed. “[I]t was the custom of Pall Mall editors [. . .] to mark up runs of the paper, identifying contributors of anonymous items in order to indicate payment.” A large archive of this sort of material was preserved until the 1950s, when “this treasure trove had been offered to the Superintendent of the British Library Newspaper Library, who, in his wisdom, had declined the offer”, and the whole archive was promptly sent to the garbage dump. (See vol. 6, p. lvi for more on this sad story.)

As a last resort, one can try carefully reading unsigned articles to see if they have any stylistic similarities with a particular author, such as Wilde. A few articles discovered in this way, which might be by Wilde on the basis of style, are included at the end of Vol. 7 as “dubia”; the editors included very interesting notes pointing out exactly which passages include typically Wildean stylistic constructs.

Snark, glorious snark

“Dr. Donaldson's article on Byzantine Literature is as interesting as any account of a literature written entirely by mediocrities could be” (vol. 6, p. 23).

On Whistler: “For that he is indeed one of the very greatest masters of painting, is my opinion. And I may add that in this opinion Mr. Whistler himself entirely concurs.” (Vol. 6, p. 36.) And from a later article: “Mr. Whistler always spelt art, and we believe still spells it, with a capital ‘I.’ ” (Vol. 7, p. 156.)

“The nineteenth century may be a prosaic age, but we fear that, if we are to judge by the general run of novels, it is not an age of prose.” (Vol. 6, p. 61.)

“Mr. Armstrong also carefully observes the rules of decorum, and, as he promises his readers in a preface, keeps quite clear of ‘the seas of sensual art.’ In fact, an elderly maiden lady could read this volume without a blush, a thrill, or even an emotion.” (Vol. 6, p. 67.)

“Doctor Goodchild seems to be an ardent disciple of Mr. Browning, and though he may not be able to reproduce the virtues of his master, at least he can echo his defects very cleverly.” (Vol. 6, p. 68.)

“Mr. E. O. Pleydell-Bouverie has endowed the novel-writing fraternity with a new formula for the composition of titles. After ‘J. S.; or Trivialities,’ there is no reason why we should not have ‘A. B.; or Platitudes,’ ‘M. N.; or Sentimentalisms,’ ‘Y. Z.; or Inanities.’ There are many books which these simple titles would characterize much more aptly than any high-flown phrases—as aptly, in fact, as Mr. Bouverie's title characterizes the volume before us.” (Vol. 6, p. 70.)

“The book can be read without any trouble, and was probably written without any trouble also. The style is prattling and pleasing.” (Vol. 6, p. 87.)

From the review of a volume of poems written by two tramps: “we are sorry to see that that disregard of the rights of property which always characterizes the able-bodied vagrant is extended by our tramps from the defensible pilfering from hen roosts to the indefensible pilfering from poets. [. . .] we feel that bad as poultry-snatching is, plagiarism is worse. [. . .] From highway robbery and crimes of violence one sinks gradually to literary petty larceny” (vol. 6, p. 96).

“Mr. Quilter is the apostle of the middle classes, and we are glad to welcome his gospel. After having listened so long to the Don Quixotes of art, to listen once to Sancho Panza is both salutary and refreshing.” (Vol. 6, p. 108.) Later in the same review: “How valuable also in connection with house decoration is Sententia No. 351: ‘There is nothing furnishes a room like a book-case, and plenty of books in it’! How cultivated the mind that thus raises literature to the position of upholstery, and puts thought on a level with the antimacassar! [. . .] Mr. Quilter is quite earnest in his endeavours to elevate art to the dignity of manual labour.” (P. 110.)

“There are two ways of misunderstanding a poem. One is to misunderstand it, and the other is to praise it for qualities that it does not possess. The latter is Mr. Noel's method” (vol. 6, p. 113). By the way, a similar and more widely known epigram attributed to Wilde is: “There are two ways to dislike poetry: one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.” This one appears widely on the web, but I couldn't find out where exactly it's from; according to this article from Notes and Queries, it's from a letter (p. 482 in the 1962 ed. of Wilde's letters).

“Still it is a thoroughly well-intentioned book and eminently suitable for invalids. (Vol. 6, p. 129.)

“They [i.e. remarks on the Greek Drama] show a want of knowledge that must be the result of years of study.” (Vol. 6, p. 141.)

“We are sorry too to find an English dramatic critic misquoting Shakespeare, as we had always been of opinion that this was a privilege reserved specially for our English actors.” (Vol. 6, p. 148.)

“Mr. Campbell leads off by apostrophizing the Muses as—// These cultured sprites/ Who occupied, of yore, Olympus' heights,// and they do not seem to have been propitiated by this novel form of address.” (Vol. 6, p. 164.)

“Such novels as Scamp are possibly more easy to write than they are to read.” (Vol. 6, p. 183.)

“Dull as Tiff is—and its dulness is quite remarkable—it does not deserve so detestable a binding.” (Vol. 6, p. 184.)

“In discussing this important question of conversation, he has not merely followed the scientific method of Aristotle, which is perhaps, excusable, but he has adopted the literary style of Aristotle, for which no excuse is possible.” (Vol. 7, p. 35.)

Wilde quotes the following passage from Bella Duffy's Life of Madame de Staël, about Staël's novel Corinne: “It is extremely moral, deeply sentimental, and of a deadly earnestness — three characteristics which could not fail to recommend it to a dreary and ponderous generation, the most deficient in taste that ever trod the earth.” (Vol. 7, p. 61.)

“ ‘The Chronicle of Mites’ is a mock-heroic poem about the inhabitants of a decaying cheese [. . .] This cheese-epic is a rather unsavory production, and the style is, at times, so monstrous and so realistic that the author should be called the Gorgon-Zola of literature.” (Vol. 7, p. 68.)

“It is a curious fact that the worst work is always done with the best intentions, and that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves very seriously.” (Vol. 7, p. 81.)

“ ‘Andiadorocté’ is the title of a volume of poems by the Rev. Clarence Walworth, of Albany, N.Y. It is a word borrowed from the Indians, and should, we think, be returned to them as soon as possible.” (Vol. 7, p. 102.)

“Dr. Cockle tells us that Müllner's ‘Guilt’ and the ‘Ancestress’ of Grillparzer are the masterpieces of German Fate-tragedy. His translation of the first of these two masterpieces does not make us long for any further acquaintance with the school.” (Vol. 7, p. 193. This is from article No. 123, in which Wilde reviews 9 volumes of more or less bad poetry by various authors, and in fact the entire article is delightfully sarcastic.)

“An eminent Oxford theologian once remarked that his only objection to modern progress was that it progressed forward instead of backward” (vol. 7, p. 237).

“But I must not allow this brief notice of Mr. Pater's new volume to degenerate into an autobiography. I remember being told in America that whenever Margaret Fuller wrote an essay upon Emerson the printers had always to send out to borrow some additional capital ‘I's,’ and I feel it right to accept this transatlantic warning.” (Vol. 7, p. 244.)

“ ‘A World in White, and other Poems,’ are eminently respectable products of the clerical school of versifying. They are doubtless much esteemed in the author's parish.” (Vol. 7, pp. 304–5.)

“Many literary sins have been committed in the name of elocution, but none deadlier than Mr. F. G. Webb's ‘Original Ballads.’ ” (Vol. 7, pp. 305.)

Miscellaneous interesting things in vol. 6

In an 1884 article, Wilde writes: “beauty, as some one finely said, is the purgation of all superfluities” (vol. 6, p. 32). The editors' note on p. 233 says this idea is from Michelangelo, though Wilde probably got it via Emerson. Perhaps this was also the inspiration for an even more famous quote from Saint-Exupéry: “perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away”.

A nice aphorism from Baudelaire, quoted by Wilde in vol. 6, p. 39: “A man can live for three days without bread, but no man can live for one day without poetry”. He reused it in a later review as well (vol. 7, p. 51).

There's an 1885 article with an interesting discussion of Shakespeare's views of stage-scenery: “it is impossible to read him without seeing that he is constantly protesting against the two special limitations of the Elizabethan stage, the lack of suitable scenery, and the fashion of men playing women's parts” (vol. 6, p. 42). One way of dealing with that was to include more picturesque descriptions of the scene into the text of the play itself, and Wilde suggests that we might count ourselves lucky that he didn't have access to better stage machinery, or we would now be deprived of such picturesque passages in his plays (vol. 6, p. 43).

I guess this whole thing should be understood as part of a discussion on how Shakespeare's plays should be performed in the modern day. Wilde concludes: “let those critics, who hold up for our admiration the simplicity of the Elizabethan stage, remember that they are lauding a condition of things against which Shakespeare himself [. . .] always strongly protested” (vol. 6, p. 44).

There's an interesting phrase on p. 49, in a description of over-acting: “unless he has sawn the air with his hand, mouthed his lines, torn his passion to tatters, and out-Heroded Herod”. I haven't heard of ‘sawing the air’ before, but it sounds wonderfully evocative. I guess it's something similar to what tvtropes nowadays calls ‘milking the giant cow’.

A delightfully aesthetic passage from a theatrical review: “Through an alley of white hawthorn and gold laburnum we passed into the green pavilion that served as the theatre, the air sweet with the odour of the lilac and with the blackbird's song;” (vol. 6, p. 57). This almost sounds like something from the beginning of Dorian Gray. It's a nice example of how Wilde's style in the reviews prefigures that of his later literary work.

A wonderful phrase for taking out of context: “nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning” (vol. 6, p. 62). Taken in context, it's a bit less delightfully outrageous: “the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching, to Parnassus there is no primer, and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning”. Wilde would later write similarly in his review of Chuang Tsǔ, summarizing some of the ideas of that philosopher as: “true wisdom can neither be learnt nor taught”. And it reminds me a little of Lord Fermor's line in chapter 3 of Dorian Gray: “If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.”

An interesting explanation of art for art's sake, in a review of the letters of George Sand: “Perhaps she valued good intentions in art a little too much, and she hardly understood that art for art's sake is not meant to express the final cause of art but is merely a formula of creation” (vol. 6, p. 65).

There's an interesting review of a performance of Shelley's The Cenci in 1886 (No. 32, vol. 6, pp. 77–8). The incest-themed subject matter of the play clashed with various anti-obscenity laws, so the organizers had to make use of a loophole: the Shelley Society organized the performance as a private event for their own members, and thus it didn't count as a public performance for the purposes of the law (see vol. 5, p. 34). But Wilde's review is a bit lazy, as more than half of the review consists of quotations from Shelley.

From an 1886 review: “A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. Who would care to go out to an evening party to meet Tomkins, the friend of one's boyhood, when one can sit at home with Lucien de Rubempré?” (Vol. 6, p. 89.) He would later reuse this in The Decay of Lying (see vol. 6, p. 295; and vol. 4, p. 375).

From the review of an anthology which had apparently been badly mauled by numerous misprints: “A poet can survive everything but a misprint.” (Vol. 6, p. 99.)

There's a very interesting discussion of nihilism in an 1887 review (vol. 6, p. 159). Similar ideas can later be found in The Decay of Lying (see vol. 6, p. 271.)

An editorial comment in vol. 6, p. 248 mentions that “W[ilde]'s most famous comment on Raffalovich is that ‘he came to London to found a salon and succeeded only in founding a saloon’ (H & H-D, 255–6)”. He seems to have reused the same idea in chapter 1 of Dorian Gray, where Lord Henry says: “My dear fellow, she tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.”

There's a very funny poem by E. W. Bowling, quoted in the editorial comments (vol. 6, p. 247–8) to Wilde's review of Bowling's book Sagittulae. In the poem, a very Aesthetic young woman addresses her wanna-be suitor: “ Art thou soulful? Art thou tuneful? Can'st thou weep o'er nature's woes?/ Art thou redolent of Ruskin? Dost thou love a yellow rose?/ Hast thou bathed in emanations from the canvass of Burne Jones?/ As thou gazest at a Whistler, doth it whistle wistful tones?” etc. :)

On dress reform

Some of the early articles in this collection are on the subject of fashion and “dress reform”, which was apparently of much interest to Wilde and even more to his wife Constance, who was active in the Rational Dress Society (see vol. 6, pp. 228–9). Much of what he writes seems surprisingly sensible. His main ideas are that clothing should be comfortable, that it should pose no undue constraints on the wearer's motion, and that it should be designed with an understanding of the inherent beauty of the human figure.

“[T]he beauty of a dress depends entirely and absolutely on the loveliness it shields, and on the freedom and motion that it does not impede./ From this it follows that there can be no beauty of national costume until there is a national knowledge of the proportions of the human form. To Greek and Roman such knowledge came naturally from the gymnasium and the palæstra, from the dance inthe meadow and the race by the stream. We must acquire it by the employment of art in education.” (Vol. 7, p. 584.)

“And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. From the point of view of science, it not unfrequently violates every law of health, every principle of hygiene.” (From an 1887 article; vol. 7, p. 10.) Wilde reused this idea several times; apparently it originated in his 1884 lecture on dress (see the editors' note in vol. 7, p. 333). See also this very interesting website which points out that Wilde's first use of this quip in print occurred in an 1885 article; It was recently published in John Cooper's book Oscar Wilde on Dress, CSM Press, 2013, and it's also included in Vol. 7 as Appendix II.

On lumpy flowers

In the editors' notes in vol. 6, pp. 249–50 there's a very funny exchange of letters concerning the pronunciation of the word “tuberose”. This is the name of a flower and appeared in the title of a book of poems, Tuberose and Meadowsweet, by André Raffalovich. Wilde reviewed it (p. 46) and complained about the fact that Raffalovich used the word as if it had three syllables, rather than two. Raffalovich replied with a letter pointing out that it does in fact have three syllables, since the name comes “from the Latin tuberosus, the lumpy flower” (p. 259) and has nothing to do with tubes or roses. He even cites a passage from Shelley's poem The Woodman and the Nightingale where it's used as trisyllabic. This view was supported by letters to the editor from several other readers.

Wilde replied in his characteristic style: “I am deeply distressed to hear that tuberose is so called from its being a ‘lumpy flower.’ It is not at all lumpy, and, even if it were, no poet should be heartless enough to say so. Henceforth, there really must be two derivations for every word, one for the poet, and one for the scientist. [. . .] [The poet will] leave to the man of science horrid allusions to its supposed lumpiness, and indiscreet revelations of its private life below ground. On the roots of verbs Philology may be allowed to speak, but on the roots of flowers she must keep silence. We cannot allow her to dig up Parnassus.” (P. 250.)

Wilde even cites another poem by Shelley (The Sensitive Plant), where he says the word is used as a disyllabic one. But from reading this second poem by Shelley, it isn't obvious to me that you can really say anything definite about the number of syllables in that word. This poem doesn't seem to have such a regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables; there are four stressed syllables per line, but there are variously one or two unstressed syllables before each stressed syllable, in no definite pattern. In fact this poem strikes me as more suitable for singing than reading. You could easily read “tuberose” there as either two- or three-syllabic, it's just that in the trisyllabic version you'd have to pronounce the first two syllables a bit faster.

Miscellaneous interesting things in vol. 7

From an 1888 review: “As for George Meredith, who could hope to reproduce him? His style is chaos illumined by brilliant flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything, except language; as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story; as an artist he is everything, except articulate.” (Vol. 7, p. 47. Wilde later reused this in The Decay of Lying; see also the editors' note on p. 369.)

There's a very funny short article called “London Models” (No. 111, from 1889) about people who make a living by being hired by painters to pose as models for their paintings. “Every country now has its own models, except America. In New York, and even in Boston, a good model is so great a rarity that most of the artists are reduced to painting Niagara and millionaires.” (Vol. 7, p. 133.) And: “ ‘What do you sit for?’ said a young artist to a model who had sent him in her card (all models by the way have cards and a small black bag). ‘Oh, for anything you like sir,’ said the girl, ‘landscape if necessary!’ (Vol. 7, p. 134.)

There's an interesting article about the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tsǔ; Wilde reviewed a translation of his works into English (vol. 7, pp. 237–43) and includes a summary of his ideas. Tsu seems to be quite an unusual thinker. “He sought to destroy society, as we know it, as the middle classes know it; and the sad thing is that he combines with the passionate eloquence of a Rousseau the scientific reasoning of a Herbert Spencer” (p. 238); Tsu objected to government, philantropy, education, etc. The way he's described here strikes me as a weird sort of anarcho-libertarian :S

There's a very pretty love-sonnet by Laurence Binyon, quoted in its entirety by Wilde in his review of Primavera, a book of poems by Binyon and three other authors (vol. 7, p. 251).

After Tennyson's death in 1892, it apparently took several years to appoint a new Poet Laureate. Wilde wrote in 1895 (No. 137): “Mr. Swinburne is already the Poet Laureate of England. The fact that his appointment to this high post has not been degraded by official confirmation renders his position all the more unassailable. He whom all poets love is the Poet Laureate always.” (Vol. 7, p. 252.) According to the Wikipedia, the appointment was eventually given to Alfred Austin in 1896.

There's a curious review of Wilfrid Blunt's In Vinculis, a book of poems written in prison. “Prison has had an admirable effect on Mr. Wilfrid Blunt as a poet. [. . .] To him, certainly, it has been a mode of purification.” (Vol. 7, p. 149.) And in fact Blunt himself writes in the preface of his book: “Imprisonment is a reality of discipline most useful to the modern soul, lapped as it is in physical sloth and self-indulgence. Like a sickness or a spiritual retreat is purifies and ennobles; and the soul emerges from it stronger and more self-contained.” I wonder how Wilde felt about these things later when he went to prison himself. Alas, his soul, far from emerging stronger, in fact emerged from prison completely broken.

There are quite a lot of reviews of works by Russian realist writers (Turgenyev, Tolstoi, Dostoievsky); see Nos. 34, 69, and several more in the ‘dubia’ section, meaning that they are probably but not certainly by Wilde (Nos. 151, 153, 154, 157, 158). Wilde's reviews of them tend to be fairly positive, although there's the inevitable occasional jab against realism, as e.g. in this passage from No. 151 (a review of Tolstoy's “War and Peace”, in the dubia section): “It is not a highly organic story; for the author is a realist, and, in the opinion of realists, inability to construct a plot is the strongest proof of creative genius.” (Vol. 7, p. 283.)

Also from the dubia section (No. 157), here's a curious review of a short story by Tolstoy: “ ‘The Romance of a Horse,’ otherwise a somewhat revolting sketch, is remarkable for the writer's marvellously complete knowledge of horseflesh.” (Vol. 7, p. 297.)

In a review of J. M. W. Schwartz's “The Morning of a Love, and other Poems” (1885) that is probably but not certainly by Wilde (No. 142), the reviewer cites from one of the poems: “I cast my songs upon the world,/ I know now that the world will say;/ Enough for me that I have hurled/ This burden from my heart away” and remarks: “The world will probably say very little, for it has had so many poets' heart-burdens hurled at it that it has come to regard such missiles with comparative indifference.” (Vol. 7, p. 262.)

And a later passage in the same article (now reviewing “A Book of Verses” by W. Gershom Collingwood): “There are many other echoes in the book — Wordsworthian, Tennysonian, Rossettian — and if Mr. Collingswood fails to make his mark as a poet, he may, with diligence, achieve distinction as a parodist.” (Vol. 7, p. 263.)

Another extremely funny review from the dubia section is No. 159, mercilessly mocking the style of George Saintsbury's “A History of Elizabethan Literature” (1887). “Even when Mr. Sainsbury supposes himself to be writing English he is afflicted every now and then with an odd ‘xenomania,’ to use a word he much affects. (He talks in one place of ‘a judicious xenomania’—surely a strange phenomeon.) The Elizabethan miscellanies, he tells us, ‘were literary only by paregon.’ He assures us that ‘constant catena’ of authority attributes ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen’ in part to Shakespeare. He speaks of ‘a jaculative genius,’ an ‘unnovercal’ stepmother, ‘variety of tentative,’ ‘ostentatious usherment and harbingery.’ Worst of all, perhaps, is his allusion to the qualities which ‘give “The Faërie Queene” its unique unicity, if such a conceit may be pardoned.’ Such a ‘conceit’—to use no harsher term—may not be pardoned.” (Vol. 7, p. 301.)

The obligatory whine section

The number of typos and similar mistakes seems to be on the rise again, but I didn't bother keeping track of them this time. A very funny typo occurs in vol. 7, p. 478, where Ferdowsi is misspelled as “Ferdowski”. There's got to be a Soviet Russia joke in there somewhere :P In vol. 6, p. 262, Chatrian is once misspelled as Chatrain.

There's also an interesting one on p. 351: “See lines 000 above” where they apparently forgot to replace the placeholder by the correct line number.

The word “Lethaen” appears in vol. 6, p. 16; I suppose it's a typo for “Lethean”; but since it occurs again in the note on p. 217, I guess that it might be a quirk in the original newspaper from which that particular article was taken.

There's “I'Enéide” in vol. 6, p. 72; I wonder how an “l” gets mistaken for an “I” unless some sort of scanning and OCR was involved at some point; well, maybe it was.

I'm similarly confused about the appearance of “xaîpe” in the text of one of Wilde's reviews in vol. 6, p. 190, and also in the corresponding editorial comment on p. 393. Surely this cannot be meant as a Latin transliteration of the Greek word, for in that case x and p would not be appropriate; I guess they simply forgot to switch to the correct font that would display something like χαιρε in Greek.

There's an odd editorial comment in vol. 6, p. 351, where “United States Minister” is glossed as “i.e. a minister of the church.” But the context of this phrase is a discussion of the presence of Americans in British high society (vol. 6, pp. 141–2): “as far as society is concerned, the American invasion has been purely female in character. With the exception of the United States Minister, always a welcome personage wherever he goes, and an occasional lion from Boston or the Far West, no American man has any social existence in London.” Surely the minister in question is a diplomatic representative, not a clergyman. (On the other hand, admittedly the U.S. representative in Britain would probably have been an ambassador and not a mere minister.)

In deciding which words to gloss, the editors sometimes seem to err on the side of generosity. Is it really necessary to explain what “entourage” is? (Vol. 6, p. 221.)

There's a very curious typographical oddity in vol. 7, page 54, line 97. The line is “2ND. SEMI-CHORUS” and is set in all-caps. Now, this book normally uses old-style figures (which is good), but an old-style 2 is the same size as a lower-case letter and thus doesn't look so well in a line of all-caps text. The obvious solution would be to use a modern-style figure instead, which would be the same size as an upper-case letter. But what they did in this particular case was to simply enlarge an old-style 2 to the size of a capital letter, while keeping all its proportions intact — with the unsurprising result that several parts of the figure are much too thick and the whole thing looks simply bizarre. People sometimes come up with “poor-man's small caps” by simply shrinking normal caps, but this is the first time I've encountered the reverse form of this process.

Also on the subject of typographical oddities, there are some very odd quotation marks in Nos. 139 and 140, which according to the editors' note (vol. 7, p. 527) have been “preserved from the original publication” (in the Vanity Fair magazine, 1887). Basically there are superfluous opening quotation marks inside a quotation, resulting in things like “Arabian “Nights” and “Make “me a willow cabin at your gate,” (both from vol. 7, p. 256). I wonder what this looked like in the original newspaper publication; perhaps they tried to resurrect the quaint old custom of starting each line of quoted text with an opening quotation mark. But by 1887, this custom had been obsolete for probably more than a century, perhaps two.

The extreme aversion to illustrations, which I already mentioned in my post about vol. 5, continues here. For example, one of Wilde's reviews in the Pall Mall Gazette was “accompanied by sketches of four of the sculptures in question” and these were reprinted in Ross's edition of Wilde's works (vol. 6, p. 392), but not here in the OET edition.

One annoying thing about these two books is how thick they are. Volumes 5–7 seem to have been printed on much thicker paper than volumes 1–4. Volume 6 here has just around 500 pages, but it's noticeably thicker than volume 4, which has 700 pages. Vol. 7 with 630 pages is thicker still. I'm a bit disappointed by this move towards excessively thick paper. Perhaps their idea is that it will make the books more durable, but I wonder if that's really necessary. I have several volumes that were printed by Oxford University Press at the beginning of the 20th century on what they called “India paper” — wonderfully thin, and the books are still in good shape despite being more than a hundred years old.

Interesting books reviewed by Wilde

  • Dinner and Dishes by ‘Wanderer’ (London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1885). Reviewed by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 39–40.
  • W. G. Wills: Melchior (London: Macmillan and Co., 1885). Seems to be a narrative poem in Browning's style. Reviewed approvingly by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 40–2.
  • Greek Lays, Idylls, Legends, &c. Translated by Miss E. M. Edmonds. (London, Trübner and Co., 1885.) Translations of *modern* Greek poems, reviewed approvingly by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 53–4.
  • Sir Thomas Lauder: The Wolfe of Badenoch: a Historical Romance of the Fourteenth Century (1827). An 1886 reprint was reviewed by Wilde in vol. 6, p. 86. He points out that the book was popular in Sir Walter Scott's day, but Wilde and his contemporaries were turned off by its self-conscious antiquarianism.
  • Hugh Stutfield: El Magreb: Twelve Hundred Miles' Ride through Morocco. London, 1886. See Wilde's delightful and approving review in vol. 6, pp. 97–8.
  • Ernst Eckstein: Aphrodite, tr. from the German by Mary J. Safford (NY and London, 1886). A historical novel; “Eckstein is a sort of literary Tadema, and cares more for his backgrounds than he does for his figures, still he can tell a story very well” (vol. 6, p. 102).
  • Willam Morris's translation of the Odyssey (two vols., London, 1887). Glowingly reviewed by Wilde, vol. 6, pp. 154–6 (“a true work of art, a rendering not merely of language into language, but of poetry into poetry”). The style is more like something you'd expect in ancient English poetry: “But therewith unto the handmaids goodly Odysseus spake:/ ‘Stand off I bid you, damsels, while the work in hand I take,” etc.
  • Walter Pater: Imaginary Portraits. Reviewed by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 178–80.
  • Stephen Coleridge: Demetrius (London, 1887). A historical novel set in Russia around the time of Ivan the Terrible. Reviewed approvingly by Wilde in vol. 6, pp. 181–2.
  • Caroline Fitzgerald: Venetia Vistrix (1889). A volume of poems in the style of Robert Browning. See Wilde's positive review in vol. 7, pp. 207–10.
  • [Mrs.] Graham R. Thomson: The Bird-Bride (1889). “[A] collection of romantic ballads, delicate sonnets, and metrical studies in foreign fanciful forms” (from Wilde's review, vol. 7, pp. 221–4). Includes a few imitations of border ballads.
  • Norman Macleoud: A Dutchman's Difficulties with the English Language. Mentioned in vol. 7, p. 262.
  • J. M. W. Schwartz: The Morning of a Love, and other poems (1885). Reviewed by Wilde in vol. 7, p. 262 (“as for his matter, it is rather monotonously erotic and melancholic”).
  • William Morris: A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and all the Kindreds of the Mark (1889). "[I]t is written in blended prose and verse [. . .] and tells the tale of the House of the Wolfings in their struggles against the legionaries of Rome then advancing into northern Germany” (from Wilde's review of it in vol. 7, pp. 185–7).


  • Karl Beckson: London in the 1890s: A Cultural History (NY and London, 1992). Vol. 6, p. 524.
  • Davis Coakley: Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish (Dublin, 1994). Vol. 6, p. 203.
  • John Cooper: Oscar Wilde on Dress (CSM Press, 2013). See Vol. 7, pp. 10, 333; includes an article by Wilde that is missing from vols. 6 and 7. See also the book's website and amazon page.
  • Regenia Gagnier: Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Aldershot, 1986). Vol. 7, p. 366 (“W[ilde] was particularly astute in presenting an image for consumption by the media”).
  • Charlotte Gere with Lesley Hoskins: The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior (London, 2000). Vol. 6, p. 199; vol. 7, p. 429.
  • Merlin Holland: The Wilde Album (London, 1997). Vol. 6, p. 232.
  • Joy Melville: Mother of Oscar: The Life of Jane Francesca Wilde (London, 1994). Vol. 6, p. 339.
  • Kevin O'Brien: Oscar Wilde in Canada (Toronto: Personal Library, 1982). Vol. 7, p. 553.
  • Richard Pine: The Thief of Reason: Oscar Wilde and Modern Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1995). Vol. 7, p. xiv.
  • Annabel Robinson: The Life and Work of Jane Ellen Harrison (Oxford, 2002). Nothing to do with Wilde really, but a separate subject of interest to me. Harrison is however mentioned in Wilde's review of a production of Alcestis in Oxford, in which Harrison also appeared in the titular role (vol. 7, p. 382).
  • Sir James Rennell Rodd: Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf (Philadelphia, 1882). He was Wilde's friend at Oxford; Wilde wrote a preface for this book of poems by Rodd (vol. 7, p. 399).
  • Edgar Saltus: Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression (Chicago, 1917). Wilde met Saltus during his American tour and they remained in contact (vol. 6, p. 297).
  • Tomoko Sato and Lionel Lambourne (eds): The Wilde Years: Oscar Wilde and the Art of his Time (London, 2000). Vol. 6, p. 197.
  • T. de Vere White: The Parents of Oscar Wilde (London, 1967). Vol. 6, p. 339.
  • Oscar Wilde: Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: A lecture delivered in Platt's Hall, San Francisco on Wednesday, April Fifth, 1882, ed. Robert D. Pepper (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1972). Vol. 7, p. xiv.
  • Oscar Wilde: The Women of Homer, ed. Thomas Wright and Donald Mead (London, 2008). Seems to be an essay written by Wilde as a student (vol. 6, p. 209).

Labels: , , ,

BOOK: Oscar Wilde, "Duchess of Padua" and "Salome"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 5: Plays I: The Duchess of Padua, Salomé: drame en un acte, Salome: Tragedy in One Act. Ed. by Joseph Donohue. Oxford University Press, 2013. 0198119577. xviii + 780 pp.

This is the fifth book in the Oxford English Texts edition of Wilde's collected works. It includes two of Wilde's plays (The Duchess of Padua and Salome); according to the introduction (p. xiii), there will eventually be three more volumes of plays in this series.

The Duchess of Padua

Wilde wrote this tragedy relatively early in his career, around 1883, and didn't have very much success with it. He tried to get a noted American actress named Mary Anderson to buy the rights to the play and act in it, and although she was initially interested, she changed her mind once she read the finished play (pp. 2–6). It was eventually performed for three weeks in 1891 (p. 15), and after that apparently never again during Wilde's lifetime, and very few times afterwards (p. 16).

One of the main objections seems to have been the same as in the case of Wilde's poetry around the same time: experienced readers felt that it wasn't original enough (p. 26). (Another objection from Anderson's point of view was that the play might appeal more to people who want to merely read plays and not go see them performed on stage; p. 44.) This sort of thing doesn't bother someone like me, who am not really familiar with most of the sources that influenced Wilde; but it might have bothered the regular theatre-going audience of Wilde's time, or at least Anderson seems to have thought so. Anyway, I rather enjoyed reading this play, and if I was a theatre-going type of person (which I'm not) I imagine I would also enjoy seeing it on stage.

Nevertheless, I was also very interested to read the editor's introduction and commentaries, where he points out numerous instances of earlier plays from which Wilde borrowed ideas, plot elements, even names (p. 29), and sometimes words or entire phrases. The only hint of derivativeness that I could notice if I hadn't read the introduction and comments would be that the play is written in a style that, for want of a better term, I would think of as vaguely Shakespearean; but I wouldn't see it as a problem as I would imagine that this is simply the normal way in which English tragedies were written before the 20th century or so :)

But judging by the editor's commentary, the influences go way beyond a vague similarity of style; the commentary points out numerous specific instances where this or that line in The Duchess of Padua is an echo of this or that specific line from some play by Shakespeare. Other influences include Thomas Otway's 17th-century play Venice Preserved (p. 26) and several romantic tragedies from the earlier part of the 19th century (Shelley's Cenci, pp. 34–9; and several plays by Victor Hugo, pp. 29–33, especially his Lucrèce Borgia).

Another thing I found particularly interesting in the editor's comments are extensive passages from Wilde's letters to Mary Anderson, in which he explains his intentions behind this or that passage in the play, or why he wanted the scenery done in a particular way, and so on. Rationally, we all know that a play, or indeed any sort of work of art, doesn't spring forth ready-made from the artist's inspiration (like Athena from her father's forehead), and that its creation in fact involves a fair bit of craftmanship, premeditated planning, revising, and the like; but we don't often get to see this process in action, as it were: usually, when you read a play, you just see the end-result of this process. But here we get a few glimpses into the creative process itself, which I found quite interesting.

One thing bothered me a little about this play, but isn't really specific to it; many other plays, movies, novels etc. suffer from the same problem. (There's even a tvtropes page page for it.) Namely, to set up sufficiently dramatic situations which will suitably stir the reader's (or viewer's) feelings, the author has to have his characters behave like idiots — if they behaved more reasonably, much of the drama simply wouldn't happen.

<spoiler warning>

In this play, Guido intends to avenge his father's death by killing the Duke of Padua, and has joined him as a courtier to wait for a suitable opportunity. The Duke is not only a tyrant but an all-round asshole; his wife unsurprisingly hates him, for many good reasons, and she and Guido soon fall in love; but then he is reminded of his oath to kill the Duke, and decides that this is incompatible with his love for the Duchess, so he callously sends her away, which pretty much breaks her heart. Here we already see the first instance of idiocy; he knew how much she hates the Duke, so he could easily confide his plan in her, they could plot the Duke's death together and then ride away into the sunset together, and all would end well. His scruples that he couldn't aspire to love after his conscience would be burdended by the horrible murder of the Duke, which he is planning to commit soon (2.453–460), are likewise stupid; murder might not be exactly commendable, but if you do decide to commit it, you should at least have the sense to not be all guilt-ridden afterwards. This is doubly so if you believe that your causes for murder were just, and indeed Guido's planned murder of the Duke would be as well justified as any murder could reasonably hope to be.

Then in the next act, Guido, in a sudden flash of magnanimity, decides that instead of stabbing the Duke in his sleep, a better revenge would be to leave him alive but put a dagger and a note on his chest while he sleeps; the note would explain what this is all about, how Guido could have killed him but didn't, and Guido would meanwhile run from the city. In a way, this is not a bad idea, though its efficacy depends largely on whether the evil old Duke would feel suitably shocked by knowing how easily he could have been stabbed in his sleep that night — and I'm not sure that he would be; he might just as well cynically mock Guido's weakness and simply ramp up the security measures in his palace a bit. (Guido isn't sure either, but he decides he doesn't care; 3.196–201.)

Anyway, just as Guido is on the way to the Duke's bedroom to carry out his plan, he meets the Duchess carrying a bloody dagger — it turns out she has just killed the Duke. In the previous act, Guido hadn't explained properly why he suddenly spurns her love, so she thought that it was because she was still married to the Duke, and this intensified her hatred of him enough to make her kill him. (Here's idiocy again — this misunderstanding could have been avoided if people could just be bothered to communicate plainly. But maybe I shouldn't complain too much, as this type of idiocy is very widespread in the real world as well.)

Further idiocy sets in at this point. If Guido had any sense, he should now decide that even if things didn't go exactly as he planned, his revenge is nevertheless accomplished as well as it can reasonably be, given the circumstances, and that he and the Duchess should run away from the city before the Duke's death is discovered — as indeed she urges him to do. But instead, he decides that he now cannot love her any more, because she murdered her husband or something like that. They keep arguing at great length, until eventually soldiers show up and the Duchess, now angry at Guido for rejecting her yet again, has him arrested and claims that it was he who murdered the Duke.

In the next act, Guido is on trial for killing the Duke, and although he has an opportunity to explain that it was actually the Duchess that killed him, he does not do so, because apparently he still loves her after all, and would rather get executed himself than try to save his life by blaming the Duchess. This is nice, but if he still loves her that much, why the hell did he reject her idea to run away together in the previous act?! I suppose the idea is that he doesn't want to live without her (because he still loves her), but not with her either (because she murdered the Duke, or something like that); but that's idiocy, as far as I'm concerned. They should have ran away together while there was still time, and they could still break up afterwards if they wanted to.

High drama continues in the last act. After she saw how Guido refused to betray her during his trial, the Duchess is in love with him again; she visits him the night before his execution and tries to convince him to run away, wearing her cloak so the guards will think it's her. He refuses, either because he doesn't want to live without her, or because he thinks she'd get in trouble for helping him escape; he might be right about this second part, though I'm not sure if we really find out enough about the legal machinery of Padua to know how this would turn out. (We definitely see that the Duchess's influence on the judicial system is relatively limited. Still, in one of the earlier manuscripts of the play, the Duchess does seem to think that she could get away with it: “he will escape tonight and I being Duchess/ am set above suspicion”, p. 306.) In any case, she wouldn't stay alive anyway, as she took poison before this whole conversation started, but he doesn't know it yet. They keep bickering long enough that the soldiers almost show up to take Guido to his execution, and then he, learning that she has taken poison (and is indeed by now almost dead from it), commits suicide by stabbing himself with her dagger (the same with which she had killed the Duke). So instead of having at least one of them, possibly both, get out of this mess alive, we end up with both of them dead. I suppose this is very passionate and very romantic, and appropriate in a tragedy, and they might even hope to meet again in the afterlife or something like that; but I still couldn't help feeling annoyed by so many instances of people making so many unreasonable decisions throughout the play.

</spoiler warning>

I wonder if it's possible to make a decent tragedy without having your character make annoyingly idiotic decisions. I suspect you can already see this problem in ancient Greek tragedies, but at least they had a better excuse — they could blame the characters' stupid behavior on the influence of the gods.

Some of my favourite lines in the play come from the Duke's deliciously wicked and cynical opinions: “Why every man of them has his price,/ Although, to do them justice, some of them/ Are quite expensive.” (Act I, ll. 269–71; p. 110.) “Have prudence: in your dealings with the world/ Be not too hasty; act on the second thought,/ First impulses are generally good.” (Act I, ll. 282–4; p. 111.) And he says of his wife: “Why, she is worse than ugly, she is good.” (Act II, l. 2; p. 117.) You can practically see him twirling his moustache while saying this stuff :))

“I like no law at all,/ Were there no law there'd be no law-breakers,/ So all men would be virtuous.” (Spoken by the Second Citizen in Act IV, ll. 429–31; p. 172.)

From Act V (ll. 252–5, p. 185): “Guido: Sweet, it was not yourself,/ It was some devil tempted you./ Duchess: No, no,/ We are each our own devil, and we make/ This world our Hell.” This passage reminded me of some fine lines from Donne: “Tentations martyr us alive; a man/ Is to himselfe a Dioclesian.”

Introduction and commentary to Salome

I was really impressed by this part of the book. I'm accustomed to extensive introductions and generous commentaries in the OUP edition of Wilde's works, but here they have really outdone themselves; the total length of introductions and commentaries to Salome is approx. 330 pages, and they touch on a number of interesting topics.

There's an interesting discussion on the sources and historical background of the Salome story. It is briefly mentioned in two of the gospels (Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29; quoted on pp. 366, 429), but Salome's name doesn't appear there at all. The other early source is Josephus's history of the Jews (pp. 419, 422), which gives Salome's name (p. 423). The editor mentions several 19th-century works that deal with the story of Salome, although many of them refer to her as Herodias (same name as her mother). For example, there's a little-known play The Daughter of Herodias by Henry Rich (who later became a notable politician; p. 372), and several by an American author, Joseph Cameron Heywood (Salome, Herodias, and Antonius; p. 386). Wilde was also influenced by Flaubert's version of the Salome story, Herodias (one of his Three Stories; p. 381; Wilde borrowed a number of details from it, p. 383); as well as by his Salammbô and Temptations of St Antony (pp. 384–5). Another big influence on Salomé was the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (pp. 391–412), who seems to be a kind of pioneer of Symbolist drama. And the editor even identified exactly which French translation of the Bible Wilde was using as an inspiration for Iokanaan's ravings (de Sacy's 17th-century translation, p. 413).

The extent of Maeterlinck's influence on Wilde's Salome is demonstrated by the reaction of his friend, W. Graham Robertson: when Wilde read a few passages of Salome to him, Robertson thought it was intended to be a parody of Maeterlinck's writing; Wilde, for once, was not amused (pp. 405–6).

The editor also points out how Wilde took a number of liberties with the historical background; for example, in earlier versions of the story, it is Salome's mother that tells her to ask Herod for John the Baptist's head, whereas Wilde's Salome explicitly says that she is doing this for her own pleasure and not at her mother's suggestion (p. 431; though the mother is definitely very pleased by the prospect of being rid of the saint, whom she finds very annoying: p. 726).

There's an interesting discussion of the early performances of Salomé in Europe. Sarah Bernhard, the famous French actress, was going to play Salome in London (p. 467), but the censor forbade the play, describing it as “written in French—half Biblical, half pornographic—by Oscar Wilde himself” (pp. 439, 470), and in fact it remained banned in Britain until 1931 (p. 487)! So the first performance of Salomé was in France (with a different actress, Lina Munte; p. 476), and in the next few years it was performed in many countries, being quite successful in Germany (p. 485), and even coming as far as Greece (p. 486). Richard Strauss turned it into an opera of the same name (p. 400).

See also p. 470 for more shocked comments by the British censor, E. F. Smyth Pigott (“a miracle of impudence”, “[Salome's] love turns to fury because John will not let her kiss him in the mouth—and in the last scene, where she brings in his head—if you please—on a ‘charger’—she does kiss his mouth”). Foreign-language plays were treated more leniently by the censors since the average British playgoer was unlikely to see them (p. 471), but in Salome's case that still wasn't enough.

I was also interested by the discussion of the process of creating Salomé and its English translation. Many decades later, Lord Alfred Douglas claimed in one of his autobiographies that Wilde's French was so poor that he initially wrote the play in English and then asked his French friends (writers such as Pierre Louÿs, André Gide, and Marcel Schwob) to translate it into French. But the editor of this edition points out that there is no evidence of this, and in fact several manuscript drafts of Salomé are extant, from which you can clearly see that Wilde worked in French throughout this process (although he did ask his friends for comments at some point); p. 673.

The story of Salome's English translation is even more interesting. It is well known that Wilde was unhappy with Douglas's translation, but it's unclear just how much he revised it before its publication. Judging by the introduction to the English translation of Salome in this book, it seems that Wilde didn't actually modify Douglas's translation much; for example, many phrases or even entire sentences from the French original are missing in the translation, and Wilde would have presumably fixed these omissions if he had revised the translation carefully (pp. 692–4). (Nevertheless, Douglas caused a ridiculous amount of drama by objecting to even the slightest changes and demanding that he not be mentioned as the translator if anything is changed in his translation. Wilde tried to smooth over the issue by dedicating the translation to him instead of mentioning him as translator; p. 665–8.) The editor suggests (p. 664) that Wilde didn't care much about the translation since his main interest in Salome had been in writing the original French text (he compared writing in French to a musician trying to play a new instrument; pp. 327–8).

I also remember reading in several biographies (e.g. Ellmann's life of Wilde, and Sturgis's life of Beardsley) that Aubrey Beardsley prepared his own translation of Salome as well, though Wilde eventually chose Douglas's anyway. But it seems that this is all based on just one mention in a 1931 memoir by Douglas, which is unreliable in several other aspects, and there's no other solid evidence that Beardsley even started such a translation, let alone finished it (pp. 669–73).

Robert Ross, Wilde's friend and literary executor, later prepared a slightly improved version of Douglas's translation in 1906, and a still further improved version in 1912, but neglected to announce these changes explicitly enough. As a result, for the rest of the 20th century, various reprints and theatrical productions used either the original 1894 translation, or the 1906 version, mostly without knowing which one they are using or even that they are different at all; whereas the 1912 version was largely forgotten and never reprinted (pp. 676–80, 690).

A note on p. 690 mentions that five other people have also translated Salome into English, most recently Donogue himself (in 2011). He comments that “[o]ther English translations [. . .] have been slow in emerging”, but TBH I find this number of translations impressively high. I always imagined that Douglas's translation is so closely associated with Wilde that it's almost like an original, so it didn't occur to me that anyone would attempt to make a new English translation.

There's an interesting discussion of “closet drama” (i.e. plays intended to be read rather than seen on the stage) on p. 390; apparently, for much of the 19th century, this was “considered a purer form, a breed apart from a script intended for performance before a live audience”.

There's a delightful anecdote on p. 335, from the memoirs of Vincent O'Sullivan, who recorded what Wilde told him of how he had written Salomé: “He went out to a nearby café, where he said to the leader of the gypsy orchestra, ‘I am writing a play about a woman dancing with her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain. I want you to play somthing in harmony with my thoughts.’ The orchestra played ‘such wild and terrible music’ that it stopped all conversation. ‘Then,’ Wilde concluded, ‘I went back and finished Salomé.’ ”


As for the play itself, it was pleasant to read Salome again; and I regretted more than ever that I don't understand any French so I could read the original instead of just the translation. I found it beautiful, enjoyable and suitably decadent, but I also have to admit that I mostly have no idea what it's meant to tell us. Judging by the many mentions of Symbolism (and Maurice Maeterlinck) in the editor's introduction, I guess this play also belongs to that school; unfortunately I know next to nothing about Symbolism and as always I'm no use at trying to figure out what exactly the symbols are and what do they stand for. On the face of it, it seems just a silly (but pleasant) little episode of art for art's sake, with its stupid drunken monarch, his hasty oath, a spoiled princess with her ridiculous obsessive lust for John the Baptist, etc. — but I'm sure there's much more to the play than this, I'm just not the sort of person who would notice it.

I know the play is supposed to be a kind of tragedy, but I also liked the fact that there are many funny passages in it, most of them involving Herod's wife, Herodias, who is constantly upbraiding him for his stupid superstitiousness (pp. 716–7; “the moon is like the moon, that is all”), his lechery towards Salome (his stepdaughter! “You must not look at her! You are always looking at her!”, p. 716), and even his supposed humble family background (“My daughter and I come of a royal race. As for thee, thy father was a camel driver! He was a thief and a robber to boot!”, p. 718; he seems to have forced her into marriage after he killed her previous husband, p. 721). There are also some funny scenes in which representatives of different Jewish sects bicker about some of the finer points of their theology (pp. 718–20).

One of my favorite passages in Salome is near the end, when Herod is desperately trying to get Salome to change her mind and ask for something else than Iokanaan's head (and eventually manages to sound like a modern-day TV salesman: “But this is not all”, p. 728); the result is a long paragraph of extremely purple prose in which Herod lists all kinds of exotic treasures, offering them to Salome. According to the editor's comments, this list was partly inspired by certain passages in Flaubert's Temptation of St Anthony (where the Queen of Sheba is trying to tempt the hermit with offers of treasure; p. 647), and to some extent Wilde drew on the same sources as for the famous Chapter 11 of the Picture of Dorian Gray, which he wrote a year or two before Salomé.

At some point, Herod lists something like 15 different kinds of gems, including three kinds of topazes, one of which is “pink as the eyes of a wood-pigeon” (p. 728). By then I was so accustomed to the exhaustive thoroughness of the editor's notes that I knew there would be a long paragraph about each of those gem types, and I was not disappointed (pp. 647–50); and I was indeed rather surprised that there was no discussion of the wood-pigeon's eyes so we could find out if they really are the same color as that type of topaz :)


One very nice improvement compared to the previous volumes in this series is that there are very few typos in this volume — they are pretty much negligible compared to the heaps of typos in e.g. volume IV. I guess that at some point between 2007 and 2013, OUP finally hired a proofreader :P

There are a few instances of wrong indentation, e.g. on line 154 on p. 145, line 163 on p. 163. There's a typo on p. 244 (“Dikstra” instead of “Dijkstra”), and another on p. 420 (“putrified” instead of “putrefied”; but it's in a quotation from Josephus, so maybe it's just quirky spelling in the source material); and there's “Pharoah” on p. 569, “Huysman's” on p. 614, “Huysman” on p. 621; and two spaces are missing on p. 733.

One thing that annoyed me about the book is that the paper seems to be much thicker than necessary. This volume is almost twice as thick as volume IV, but it has just 14% more pages (800 vs. 700). The book would be much easier to handle while reading if it was a bit thinner.

I also wished that the book had more illustrations. The only illustration in it is a sketch of how the stage should look, from one of the manuscripts of Salomé (p. 508). But for example on pp. 362–3 there is a long, detailed description of a kind of logo (or ‘device’) designed by Félicien Rops for the title page of the French edition of Salomé; and on pp. 479–80 there is a detailed description of a photo of the actress Lina Munte in her role as Salomé on the French premiere of the play — it seems to me that it would make a lot of sense to include these things as illustrations instead of just describing them.

An interesting difference compared to previous volumes is the number of references to resources on the web. This is often to online texts of various old books (e.g. there's one from, cited on p. 613); and there's even one reference to a Wikipedia page (“Shaving in Judaism”, p. 587)! I was pleasantly surprised by all this, since my impression so far has been that academic authors, especially in the humanities, have a huge distrust about citing web sources, especially the Wikipedia. I still have a little bit of a prejudice myself — namely, I can't help feeling that URLs look extremely ugly in print.


A huge number of potentially interesting books are mentioned in the notes of this volume:

  • André Gide: Oscar Wilde, tr. by Bernard Frechtman (NY, 1949). P. 329.
  • Jonathan Fryer: Andr & Oscar: The Literary Friendship of Andr Gide and Oscar Wilde (NY, 1997). P. 329. Gide got to know Wilde during the latter's visits to Paris.
  • Vincent O'Sullivan: Aspects of Wilde (London, 1936). P. 335. Another book of memoirs by one of Wilde's friends.
  • Jean Paul Raymond and Charles Ricketts: Oscar Wilde: Recollections (London, 1932). Pp. 336, 360, 468.
  • William Rothenstein: Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein (NY, 1931). P. 384.
  • Max Beerbohm: Letters to Reggie Turner, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London, 1964). P. 384, 662.
  • Edgar Munhall: Whistler and Montesquiou: The Butterfly and the Bat (Paris: Flammarion, 1995). Montesquiou was the aesthete upon whom Huysmans based his des Esseintes. P. 448.
  • Holland: Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. P. 465.
  • Margery Ross (ed.): Robert Ross Friend of Friends: Letters to Robert Ross (London, 1952). P. 486.
  • Edgar Saltus: Oscar Wilde: An Idler's Impression (Chicago, 1917; rpt. NY, AMS Press, 1968). P. 657. Wilde met Saltus during his American tour and they remained in contact (vol. 6, p. 297).
  • Norman Page: An Oscar Wilde Chronology (Boston, 1991). P. 325.
  • E. H. Mikhail (ed.): Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollection (2 vols., London, 1979). P. 328.
  • Arthur Symons: The Symbolist Movement in Literature (London, 1889). P. 401.
  • Arthur Ransome: Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (London, 1912). P. 403.
  • Stefano Evangelista (ed.): The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe (London, 2010). P. 328.
  • John Stokes: In the Nineties (Chicago, 1989). P. 352.
  • Karl Beckson: London in the 1890s: A Cultural History (NY, 1992). P. 353.
  • Jean Pierrot: The Decadent Imagination 1880–1900, tr. Derek Coltman (Chicago, 1981). P. 353.
  • Linda Dowling: Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Princeton, 1986). P. 353.
  • A. H. Church: Precious Stones Considered in Their Scientific and Artistic Relations (London, 1883). P. 387. This book was one of the sources for Wilde's decriptions of gems in Dorian Gray and Salomé.
  • W. Graham Robertson: Time Was: The Reminiscences of W. Graham Robertson (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1931). P. 406, 592.
  • Helen Grace Zagona: The Legend of Salome and the Principle of Art for Art's Sake (Geneva and Paris, 1960). P. 353.
  • Neil Bartless: Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde (London, 1988). P. 592.
  • Peter Raby: Aubrey Beardsley and the Nineties (London, 1998). P. 669.
  • Henry Maas, J. L. Duncan, W. G. Good (eds.): The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley (Rutherford, NJ, 1970). P. 669.
  • H. Montgomery Hyde: Lord Alfred Douglas: A Biography (London, 1984). P. 662.
  • Lord Alfred Douglas: The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas (1931), also published in the US as My Friendship with Oscar Wilde (NY, 1932). The first edition of 1929 is missing some footnotes, so use the 2nd ed. of 1931. See p. 673.
  • Lord Alfred Douglas: Without Apology (London, 1938). P. 673.
  • Lord Alfred Douglas: Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up (London, 1940). P. 674.

Labels: , ,

BOOK: Jacopo Zabarella, "On Methods"

Jacopo Zabarella: On Methods. Vol. 1: Books I–III. Edited and translated by John P. McCaskey. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 58. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674724792. xxvi + 323 pp.

Jacopo Zabarella: On Methods. Vol. 2: Books III–IV. On Regressus. Edited and translated by John P. McCaskey. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 59. Harvard University Press, 2013. 9780674724808. vi + 470 pp.

Zabarella was a 16th-century philosopher who, according to the introduction in this book, was mostly interested in logic and closely followed Aristotle's ideas. His books, too, were to a considerable extent written as commentaries on Aristotle's works. In the present book, On Methods, Zabarella often refers to Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and presents his own ideas as either explanations of Aristotle's work or as polemics against other philosophers who understood Aristotle differently than Zabarella did. Much like with previous philosophy books in the I Tatti Renaissance Library, I'm not really the right reader for this book; I know pretty much nothing about logic as it is understood by Aristotle and similar people, and I haven't read any of his books about logic. From Zabarella's work it is clear that he was part of a lively academic culture in which logicians argued back and forth about various details of their field, and his book is likewise a part of these arguments; but I know too little of the background to be able to really appreciate the details of what they argued about, or to be able to see why these things were so important to them.

Still, I found this book not entirely uninteresting when read in small increments, and it gave me at least a rough idea of some of the things that philosophers who studied logic were interested in. Zabarella starts by introducing method in the broader sense as “an instrumental habit of the understanding by which we are helped in gaining knowledge of things” (1.2.3). He then divides it into order (how to arrange the parts of a discipline when teaching it so that it can be learned as easily and optimally as possible; 1.11.2) and method in the narrower sense (how to get from a known thing to something not yet known in the pursuit of new knowledge). Thus, the key difference is that method (in this narrower sense) involves some sort of inference, where one thing necessarily follows from another (3.2); order, on the other hand, isn't argumentation and one thing doesn't necessarly follow from another, though one thing may direct us towards things that will be explained later in the order (3.1).

I was rather surprised by this idea that the order of teaching a discipline (which for Zabarella could be either a scientific field or a more practical “art” (i.e. skill), such as architecture or medicine) should be investigated in such a general way by philosophers. I naively thought that, if someone is knowledgeable about some field and is trying to write a textbook about it (or set up a course of lectures), he will have no particular difficulty in arranging the various parts of the field into a suitable order; surely you just have to follow common sense and make sure that in your order, if some topic is needed to understand or explain some other topic, then the former has to appear earlier in your order than the latter. And some of the details of your order might be better determined not by arguing philosophically in advance, but simply by some experimentation: try teaching in various orders and see which of them is easier for the students to learn. Why would it need to be any more complicated than that?

But philosophers seem to have taken a great deal of pleasure in making things more complicated than that. Zabarella mentions the traditional division of orders into three kinds, depending on where you start (1.5, 2.2): compositive or synthetical (from causes to effects), resolutive or analytical (from effects to acuses), and definitive (from definitions). He objects to the idea that where you start should be the key thing that determines what kind of order you have (2.3), and he particularly objects to the definitive order, saying that it doesn't really exist at all: a definition just names something, it doesn't really explain anything; if you remove the definitions from the start of your treatment, the rest of it will then be seen to be either in resolutive or compositive order, so that was really the true order of your treatment all along (2.4).

So his view is that there are only two kinds of order (2.6): compositive (used to teach contemplative sciences, i.e. those where we seek knowledge for its own sake; the order begins from beginning-principles) and resolutive (used to teach practical arts; the order begins from the end (purpose) that we want to achieve with that art; e.g. for medicine, that's healing the patient; for architecture, it's building a house; etc.). Thus, he says that for any given science of art, only one or the other of these two orders is suitable (but he does then admit that for some smaller sub-areas of that discipline, the opposite order might be better; 2.20). He gives numerous examples from the works of various classical authors, especially Aristotle and Avicenna (2.10–14).

In Book 3, Zabarella focuses on method. As mentioned above, method necessarily involves some sort of inference; thus it is very similar to syllogism, the difference being that syllogism infers from what is posited, while method infers from what is known. In other words, syllogism can be about something hypothetical or it can start from something that isn't actually known, while method always works from something known to something unknown (3.3).

According to Zabarella, there are two knds of method (3.4): demonstrative (from cause to effect) and resolutive (from effect to cause). He argues vigorously against other authors who mentioned the existence of two other methods, namely divisive and definitive. Division (e.g. of a genus into its species), he says, is more like an order than like a method; it doesn't generate new knowledge, but it can be useful for arranging the parts of an already known science (3.10). Similarly, definition is not a method at all, as it doesn't lead to new knowledge about anything — it just clarifies the signification of a word (3.15).

Of the two kinds of method, the demonstrative one is more important, while resolutive is more of an auxiliary thing. With resolutive method, you discover the beginning-principles of a thing, and once you have them you use the demonstrative method to learn about things from their causes (3.18). He often emphasizes that to really know a thing, you must know not only what it is, but “what it is on account of” (i.e. its causes), and this is what demonstrative method leads to.

Resolutive method can be further divided into demonstration (= inference) from effects (which leads to the discovery of causes) and induction (from particulars to universals); 3.19.

Book 4 is mostly an assortment of Zabarella's opinions about various debates regarding Aristotle's Posterior Analytics; for me it was the least interesting part of the whole work. There seem to have been a surprising number of arguments about what exactly Aristotle's book is about — it strikes me as a bit disturbing that such a foundational work of some field should turn out to be so unclear and have so many different interpretations, but perhaps in philosophy this is actually a plus rather than a minus. Still, there are a few interesting ideas about the relationship between definition and demonstration: demonstration is a logical instrument (a method), definition is the end (purpose) of that instrument. Demonstration has discursive movement (inference), definition doesn't (4.16); the purpose of demonstration is to obtain a definition of the thing being investigated (4.17).

On Regressus

This is a separate short work included at the end of volume 2 and I found it fairly interesting as I had never heard of the regressus before. According to Zabarella, this is a logical procedure somewhat similar to a circular argument. In a circular argument, you first demonstrate a conclusion from the premises (major and minor) and then in the next step invert this and demonstrate both premises from the conclusion; both of these steps use the demonstrative method, going from distinct knowledge of one thing to distinct knowledge of another. The circular argument, of course, famously doesn't make any sense and shouldn't be used.

In the regressus, you start with what Zabarella calls “confused” or imperfect knowledge of some effect, and from it you use the resolutive method to obtain confused knowledge of its causes. There is then an intermediate step to get to “distinct” (or perfect) knowledge of the causes, and then the second step of the regressus where you use the demonstrative method to get from distinct knowledge of the causes to distinct knowledge of the effects. Thus, the net result is that you started with confused knowledge of the effect and ended with distinct knowledge of it. This is a legitimate move and you have gained some knowledge in the process. Another difference compared with the circular argument is that there the second step demonstrated both premises from the conclusion, while in the regressus the second step only demonstrates the minor premise.

Zabarella illustrates these things with a couple of examples from Aristotle, of which I particularly liked the one about smoke and fire. Suppose we see some smoke (that is the effect). We have confused knowledge of it — we know that it is there, but we don't know what it is “on account of”, i.e. what caused it. But we know that where there is smoke, there must be fire (major premise). Together with the fact that there is smoke (minor premise), we obtain the conclusion that there must be fire. This was the first step of the regressus. In the second step, now that we know that there is fire, and we also know that fire causes smoke, we can conclude that the smoke we're looking at must have been caused by the fire. Thus we now have distinct knowledge of the smoke — we know not only that it exists, but what has caused it.

Nevertheless, fun though this may be, I don't have the impression that we have really gained much knowledge in the process. It all seems rather trivial and relies heavily on knowing about the connection between smoke and fire — and it's connections like this that really give us an understanding of nature; and they are in general not that easy to figure out (except in some obvious cases like smoke and fire), and I don't have the impression that the regressus could help us much with that part.


As I said earlier, in a way some of the things in this book are somewhat interesting, but I can't really say that I understood what the point of any of this is supposed to be. Would knowing what Zabarella says here about orders really help anyone who is trying to teach some branch of science or some practical art? Would knowing what he says about methods really help any scientist who is trying to discover new knowledge in his field of learning? I can hardly imagine this being the case. I doubt that very many scientists nowadays spend much time thinking about methods in the broad, generic sense that we encounter in this book. Zabarella often gives examples from ancient medical works, from Galen and the like, which are of course invariably grotesquely wrong by our present-day standards — so when he confidently talks about the perfect knowledge of things that we can supposedly arrive at by this or that method, I have a hard time taking him very seriously.

Just like in that old saying about there being no royal road to geometry, I suspect that there is also no royal road to science, no method that would easily and reliably lead to new knowledge; so spending too much time thinking about methods in the generic sense that is done here by Aristotle, Zabarella and other such people strikes me as, well, not terribly useful. But I shouldn't criticize them for it; no doubt the things they did were necessary in their time, forming a phase that human thought had to go through until the conditions were ripe for the development of the more modern approach to science, which indeed was getting started not long after Zabarella's time (though his work seems to be looking more backwards than forwards; cf. the introduction, vol. 1, p. viii).

Labels: , , ,