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The topic of Irish aestheticism is by no means as familiar in literary history as that of the Irish revival, the movement whose origins scholars frequently trace to Standish O’Grady, whose Early Bardic Literature of Ireland (1879) stands among the first of his long line of publications on Irish legend. O’Grady’s subsequent romances about ancient Ireland followed in the style of eighteenth-century Scottish scholar James Macpherson’s eloquent prose adaptations of the oral poetry from the Highlands and Hebrides that preserved the gallant stories of warrior Fingal, his blind poet son Ossian, and his valiant grandchild Oscar. O’Grady’s cousin, Standish Hayes O’Grady, was a founding member of the Ossianic Society of Dublin (1853–63), which took its name from Macpherson’s popular Works of Ossian (1765). After Charlotte Brooke published her fine anthology Reliques of Irish Poetry, Consisting of Heroic Poems, Odes, Elegies, and Songs, Translated into English Verse (1789), the Ossianic Society was the first group to dedicate influential amounts of research to recovering the rich heritage of Irish poetry, folklore, and tradition, especially the Irish versions of the Celtic histories that Macpherson had unearthed in their Caledonian forms. This reclamation of ancient Irish culture and its impact on the revival and its nationalist aims is familiar to students of modernism. The revival had its origins in the ethnographic turn that E. B. Tylor’s Primitive Culture precipitated in 1871, and its main progenitors included Charles Gavan Duffy, George Sigerson, and Douglas Hyde. As Gregory Castle has observed, these intellectuals—who “disseminated an ideology of ‘racial’ self-improvement and national education” aiming to “restore a belief in the essential [End Page 781] piety and nobility of the Irish people”—provided the framework for much of W. B. Yeats’s poetry from The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) onward, Augusta Gregory’s collections of Irish myths, John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands (1898), and some of the early productions at the Abbey Theatre.1 Yet critics of Yeats also know well that his involvement with the Rhymers’ Club in London during the fin de siácle also brought him into contact with several poets whose works are associated with aestheticism and decadence. The attendees at the club, which met at the Cheshire Cheese public house, Fleet Street, included Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Arthur Symons, whose work appeared in the famous Book of the Rhymers Club (1892) and the Second Book of the Rhymers Club (1892). Another of the writers on the edges of this circle was Oscar Wilde: the increasingly respected writer who had earlier enjoyed much celebrity—if not a large measure of notoriety—as a self-appointed “professor of aesthetics” who began to make his stylish presence and memorable pronouncements on art at several fashionable gatherings in the late 1870s. No other figure besides Wilde could stake a stronger claim as a champion of l’art pour l’art during this period. He was the quintessential aesthete of his time.

Wilde was also, though there should be little need to note this fact, an Irishman. More to the point, he was raised in a household that in principle gave him everything he needed to become (had he wished) a figurehead in the revival. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee—who established her career with polemical nationalist poems issued during the late 1840s under the name “Speranza”—expressed great pride in taking her youngest son’s given names from Macpherson’s Ossian; as she told a friend in a letter: “He is to be called Oscar Fingal Wilde. Is not that grand, misty, and Ossianic?”2 In 1857 Wilde’s father—the prominent ear surgeon and archeologist Sir William Wilde—participated in the British Association and Royal Irish Academy’s ethnological excursion to the Aran Islands. He was also a member of the Ossianic Society. Besides his scientific papers, Sir William’s numerous publications included A Descriptive Catalogue of the Antiquities of Stone, Earthen, and Vegetable Materials in the Royal Irish Academy (1857). Many years after her spouse had died, Lady Wilde published Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland (1887). This...


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