Oscar Wilde - Picture of Dorian Gray

Art and Morality
A Defence of The Picture of Dorian Gray

"Why do you always write poetry? Why do you not write prose? Prose is so much more difficult."

These were the words of Walter Pater to Oscar Wilde on the occasion of their first meeting during the latter's undergraduate days at Oxford. [1] Those were "days of lyrical ardours and of studious sonnet-writing," wrote Wilde, in reviewing one of Pater's books some years later, [2] "days when one loved the exquisite intricacy and musical repetitions of the ballade, and the vilanelle with its linked long-drawn echoes and its curious completeness; days when one solemnly sought to discover the proper temper in which a triolet should be written; delightful days, in which, I am glad to say, there was far more rhyme than reason."

Oscar Wilde was never a voluminous writer—"writing bores me so," he once said to André Gide—and at the time of which he speaks he had published little except some occasional verses in his University magazines. Then, in 1881, came his volume of collected poems, followed at intervals during the next nine or ten years by a collection of fairy stories and some essays in the leading reviews.

"I did not quite understand what Mr. Pater meant," he continues, "and it was not till I had carefully studied his beautiful and suggestive essays on the Renaissance that I fully realised what a wonderful self-conscious art the art of English prose-writing really is, or may be made to be."

It has been suggested that it was his late apprenticeship to an art that requires life-long study which rendered Wilde's prose so insincere, resembling more the conscious artifice of the modern French school than the restrained, yet jewelled style of Pater, whom he claimed as his master in prose.

It was not till 1890 that he published his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its strangeness of colour and its passionate suggestion flickering like lightning through the gloom of the subject. The Puritans and the Philistines, who scented veiled improprieties in its paradoxes, were shocked; but it delighted the connoisseur and the artist, wearied as they were with the hum-drum accounts of afternoon tea parties and the love affairs of the curate.

That such a master of prose and scholarship as Pater should have written in terms of commendation of Dorian Gray is sufficient to prove how free from offence the story really is. In the original version of the story one passage struck Pater as being indefinite and likely to suggest evil to evil minds. This paragraph Wilde elaborated, but he refused to suppress a single sentence of what he had written. "No artist is consciously wrong," he declared.

A similar incident is recorded as early as 1878. Shairp, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, suggested some improvements in Wilde's Newdigate Prize Poem Ravenna. Wilde listened to all the suggestions with courtesy, and even took notes of them, but he went away and had the poem printed without making a single alteration in it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared on June 20th, 1890, in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine for July. It was published in America by the J.B. Lippincott Company of Philadelphia simultaneously with the English edition of the same magazine issued by Messrs. Ward, Lock and Co.

A few weeks before the publication of his romance Wilde wrote a letter to a publisher stating that his story would appear in Lippincott's on the following 20th of June, and that after three months the copyright reverted to him. The publication of Dorian Gray would "create a sensation," he wrote; he was "going to add two additional chapters," and would the publishing house with whom he was corresponding care to consider it?

Unfortunately the letter bears no indication of the house to which it was sent. However, on the 1st of July in the following year The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in book form by Messrs. Ward, Lock and Co. In this form it contained seven new chapters. The binding was of a rough grey paper, the colour of cigarette ash, with back of parchment vellum. The gilt lettering and design was by Charles Ricketts. A sumptuous édition de luxe, limited to two hundred and fifty copies, signed by the author, was also issued, the covers being similar to the ordinary edition but the gilt tooling more elaborate.

In March, 1891, Wilde had written "A Preface to 'Dorian Gray'" in the Fortnightly Review, in which he enunciated his creed as an artist. This preface is included in all impressions of Dorian Gray which contain twenty chapters.

Wilde was indeed a true prophet when he foretold that his story would create a sensation. Though it occupied but a hundred pages in a monthly periodical, it was reviewed as fully as any chef d'oeuvre of a leading novelist. In one of his letters Wilde says that out of over two hundred press cuttings which he received in reference to Dorian Gray he took public notice of only three. But it is impossible to doubt but that he was thinking of his critics when he gave vent to his views on journalists, and the attitude of the British public towards art, in his essay on The Soul of Man a few months later. "A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament," he writes. "Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is.... The moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist."

He considers it to be an impertinence for the public (represented by the journalist) who knows nothing about art to criticise the artist and his work. In this country, he declares that the arts that have escaped best from the "aggressive, offensive and brutalising" attempts on the part of the public to interfere with the individual as an artist, are the arts in which the public takes no interest. He gives poetry as an instance, and declares that we have been able to have fine poetry because the public does not read it, and consequently does not influence it. But,

"In the case of the novel and the drama, arts in which the public does take an interest, the result of the exercise of popular authority has been absolutely ridiculous. No country produces such badly written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel-form.... It must necessarily be so. The popular standard is of such a character that no artist can get to it. It is at once too easy and too difficult to be a popular novelist. It is too easy, because the requirements of the public as far as plot, style, psychology, treatment of life, and treatment of literature are concerned are within the reach of the very meanest capacity and the most uncultivated mind. It is too difficult, because to meet such requirements the artist would have to do violence to his temperament, would have to write not for the artistic joy of writing, but for the amusement of half-educated people, and so would have to suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable in him....

"The one thing that the public dislikes is novelty. Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter. The public dislikes novelty because it is afraid of it.... A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to the public, and whenever it appears it gets so angry and bewildered that it always uses two stupid expressions—one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. When the public says a work is grossly unintelligible, it means that the artist has said a beautiful thing that is new; when the public describes a work as grossly immoral, it means that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true. The former expression has reference to style; the latter to subject-matter. But it probably uses the words very vaguely, as an ordinary mob will use ready-made paving-stones. There is not a single real poet or prose-writer of this (the nineteenth) century on whom the British public has not solemnly conferred diplomas of immorality.... Of course, the public is very reckless in the use of the word.... An artist is, of course, not disturbed by it. The true artist is a man who believes absolutely in himself, because he is absolutely himself. But I can fancy that if an artist produced a work of art in England, that immediately on its appearance was recognised by the public, through its medium, which is the public press, as a work that was quite intelligible and highly moral, he would begin seriously to question whether in its creation he had really been himself at all, and consequently whether the work was not quite unworthy of him, and either of a thoroughly second-rate order or of no artistic value whatsoever."

Wilde then goes on to discuss the use of other words by journalists seeking to describe the work of an artist. These are the words "exotic," "unhealthy," and "morbid." [3] He disposes of each in turn. Briefly he says, that the public is morbid, the artist is never morbid. The word "exotic" merely expresses the rage of the momentary mushroom against the immortal, entrancing and exquisitely lovely orchid. "And," he concludes, "what the public calls an unhealthy novel is always a beautiful and healthy work of art."

[Footnote 1: Oscar Wilde matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford, October 17, 1874, and took his B.A. degree on November 28, 1878. Pater was at the time a Fellow and Tutor of Brasenose.]

[Footnote 2: The Speaker, Vol I., No. 12, page 319. March 22, 1890.]

[Footnote 3: The Times, February 23rd, 1893, in reviewing "Salome", said: "It is an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive and very offensive." Wilde replied (Times, March 2nd), "The opinions of English critics on a French work of mine have, of course, little, if any interest for me."]

In The Soul of Man he wrote:

To call an artist morbid because he deals with morbidity as his subject matter, is as silly as if one called Shakespeare mad because he wrote King Lear.

One of the results of the extraordinary tyranny of authority is that words are absolutely distorted from their proper and simple meaning, and are used to express the obverse of their right signification.