Friday, April 25, 2008

Non sum dignus


To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life's dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God.
Is that time dead?lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance
And must I lose a soul's inheritance?
Helas, Oscar Wilde

An article on The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde begins with this:

"I am not a Catholic; I am simply a violent Papist."

This article, The Vatican Goes Wilde, tells more about the context for this aphorism.


A few months before his death Wilde had travelled to Rome. On Holy Saturday he went to tea at the Hotel de l'Europe and there a man he did not know suddenly came up to him and asked if he would like to see Pope Leo XIII the next day. Wilde, ever the joker, bowed his head and, borrowing a phrase from the Mass, said "Non sum dignus [I am not worthy]". But the man produced a ticket. On Easter Day, Wilde appeared in the front row among the pilgrims at the Vatican and received a blessing from the Pope.

For five months the Irishman had been suffering from a terrible rash - perhaps, biographers have speculated, the late effects of syphilis, eating bad mussels, an allergic reaction to his hair dye or vitamin deficiency dermatitis from overuse of alcohol (he was on a litre of brandy a day, plus copious amounts of absinthe). Whatever, the rash vanished.

Wilde later wrote: "When I saw the old white Pontiff, successor of the Apostles and Father of Christendom pass, carried high above the throng, and in passing turn and bless me where I knelt, I felt my sickness of body and soul fall from me like a worn garment, and I was made whole." But still he hesitated. "My position is curious," he epigrammatised, "I am not a Catholic: I am simply a violent Papist."


Like everyone, I had known that Oscar Wilde was convicted in a public trial and went to gaol, but I had not known that it was the Marquess of Queensberry who actually had brought him to court after Wilde sued him unsuccessfully for libel. Queensberry was the one who codified the rules for boxing.

Whatever his prowess in the boxing ring, the athletic Marquess was clearly no match for Wilde in a war of words, so Wilde (against good advice) decided to bring an action for libel against him. Wilde had at the time two hit plays running in London. He had everything to lose — and he lost it. Why, then, did he take the Marquess to court?

Wilde wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol after seeing a man hung for murdering his wife:

The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Chesterton once wrote:

Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.

Of course, he was referring to the "Oscar Wilde" with the +TM mark, the flamboyantly amoral aesthete, not the interior individual. And he was making a point about gratitude and what true appreciation for beauty requires of the person, not proposing a pay-for-goods transaction. On another occasion, GKC made a distinction between the public figure of Wilde and the real thinker and man and artist behind the persona.


About Oscar Wilde, as about other wits, Disraeli or Bernard Shaw, men wage a war of words, some calling him a great artist and others a mere charlatan. But this controversy misses the really extraordinary thing about Wilde: the thing that appears rather in the plays than the poems. He was a great artist. He also was really a charlatan. I mean by a charlatan one sufficiently dignified to despise the tricks that he employs.


and later:

One might go through his swift and sparkling plays with a red and blue pencil marking two kinds of epigrams; the real epigram which he wrote to please his own wild intellect, and the sham epigram which he wrote to thrill the very tamest part of our tame civilization. This is what I mean by saying that he was strictly a charlatan - among other things. He descended below himself to be on top of others. He became purposely stupider than Oscar Wilde that he might seem cleverer than the nearest curate.


Last summer, Clare and Liam and I did an impromptu reading of a scene in Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. We had so much fun reading the parts together. I was Jack, if you want to know. But I did notice the red-pencil versus blue-pencil sorts of clevernesses. As a family, we seem to find ourselves amused even by his merely facile turns of phrase, which seem to me to be a restless impatience with conventionality, like a boy who has to ask the teacher difficult questions just to annoy her and cause a stir. You can sympathize a bit even while you get irritated by the wasted time and effort. You can sense the desire to turn things over and pull them apart in order to get at the real things behind them.

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.


I think one of the best things about Wilde as a person and probably as an artist is that he probably knew as well as anyone the difference between his charlatan side and his truthful side. That's probably one of the best things that could be said of anyone, actually.

From his De Profundis:

It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.

He also wrote:

Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one's past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, 'Even the Gods cannot alter the past.' Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do.

1 comment:

JoVE said...

All of which gives a different sense to the oft quoted line about lying in the gutter and looking at the sky.

Thanks for pulling that together. Food for thought.