Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)
From Literary Anecdotes About 19th Century Authors Born After 1829

IN his viva voce examination for 'Divvers' at Oxford, Oscar Wilde was required to translate from the Greek version of the New Testament, which was one of the set books. The passage chosen was from the story of the Passion. Wilde began to translate, easily and accurately. The examiners were satisfied, and told him that this was enough. Wilde ignored them and continued to translate. After another attempt the examiners at last succeeded in stopping him, and told him that they were satisfied with his translation. `Oh, do let me go on,' said Wilde, `I want to see how it ends.'

the word of Miss Joyce Hawkins

THE reporters who mobbed him on the boat were a little downcast by his appearance, which was more like that of an athlete than an aesthete. True, he had long hair, and he wore a bottle-green fur-lined overcoat, with a round sealskin cap on his head, but he was a giant in stature and his fists looked formidable. He naturally expected them to question him concerning his mission; instead they asked him how he liked his eggs fried, what he slept in, how he trimmed his finger-nails, and what temperature he liked his bath to be. His answers displayed a lack of interest in the questions, and they button-holed the passengers for something of a livelier nature. The passengers rose to the occasion: they had heard him complain that the trip was tame, `deucedly stupid' in fact, that the roaring ocean did not roar, and that nothing less than a storm which swept the bridge from the ship would give him any pleasure. That was enough for the reporters, who told their readers that Wilde was `disappointed with the Atlantic Ocean', a phrase which got him far more publicity than his views on aestheticism would have done, or even a sparkling riposte on the theme of fried eggs. Wilde realized that he had not done himself justice on the boat, so made up for it the moment he stepped ashore.

`Have you anything to declare?' asked the customs official. `No. I have nothing to declare'; he paused: `except my genius.'

Few remarks in history have travelled as widely and quickly as that one.

Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde (1946), pp. 58-59.

BEGGARS did not appeal to Wilde in vain, though the advice which once accompanied his help might, if followed, have seriously reduced the recipient's takings. A beggar accosted him in the Haymarket, and backed his appeal for alms with the assurance that he had no work to do and no bread to eat. `Work!' exclaimed Wilde. `Why should you want to work? And bread! Why should you eat bread?' He paused, put his hand on the man's shoulder, and continued in a friendly manner:

`Now if you had come to me and said that you had work to do, but you couldn't dream of working, and that you had bread to eat, but couldn't think of eating bread, I would have given you two shillings and sixpence.' A pause. `As it is, I give you half-a-crown.'

Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde (1946), p. 177.

MY first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous. There was present that night at Henley's, by right of propinquity or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dullness, who interrupted from time to time, and always to check or disorder thought; and I noticed with what mastery he was foiled and thrown. I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think all Wilde's listeners have recorded came from the perfect rounding of the possible. That very impression helped him, as the effect of metre, or of the antithetical prose of the seventeenth century, which is itself a true metre, helped its writers, for he could pass without incongruity from some unforeseen, swift stroke of wit to elaborate reverie. I heard him say a few nights later:

`Give me The Winter's Tale,"Daffodils that come before the swallow dares", but not King Lear. What is King Lear, put poor life staggering the fog?'

And the slow, carefully modulated cadence sounded natural to my ears. The first night he praised Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance:

`It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written.' `But', said the dull man, `would you not have given us time to read it?' `Oh, no,' was the retort, `there would have been plenty of time afterwards — in either world.'

W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (1955), p. 130 (`The Trembling of the Veil').

Once at a garden party at the Bishop of London's, I heard a lady ask Wilde if he were going to the dinner of the O.P. Club that evening. The O.P. Club had some grievance against Wilde. It was a dramatic society or something of the sort. Dramatic organizations are excitable and minatory when they dislike anybody. It was a dramatic society that booed and hissed Henry James when he took his curtain call after Guy Domville. But really they were venting their wrath against Sir George Alexander, the actor manager who had that evening for the first time made a charge for programmes. So Wilde would have had a rough house at the dinner of the O.P. Club. He therefore replied to the lady at the Bishop's party:

`I go to the dinner of the O.P. Club? I should be like a poor lion in a den of savage Daniels.'

Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday (1931), p. 41.

LATER he spoke of his prison experiences, of the horrors of the first few months, and how by degrees he became reconciled to his situation. He seemed to have lost none of his old wit and gaiety. He told how, although talking was strictly forbidden, one of his warders would exchange a remark with him now and then. He had a great respect for Oscar as a literary man, and he did not intend to miss such a chance of improving himself. He could only get in a few words at a time.

`Excuse me, sir; but Charles Dickens, Sir, would he be considered a great writer now, Sir?'

To which Oscar replied:

`Oh yes; a great writer, indeed; you see he is no longer alive.'
'Yes, I understand, Sir. Being dead he would be a great writer, Sir.'

Another time he asked about John Strange Winter.

`Would you tell me what you think of him, Sir?'
`A charming person,' says Oscar, `but a lady you know, not a man. Not a great stylist, perhaps, but a good, simple storyteller.'
`Thank you, Sir, I did not know he was a lady, Sir.'

And a third time:

`Excuse me, Sir, but Marie Corelli, would she be considered a great writer, Sir?'
`This was more than I could bear,' continued Oscar, `and putting my hand on his shoulder I said: "Now don't think I have anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here."'
`You say so, Sir, you say so,' said the warder, surprised, but respectful.

Was ever so grim a jest made in so strange a situation?

Sir William Rothenstein, Men and Memories (1931), i. 311.

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