- The Poets of the Nineties
Jarlath Killeen's The Faiths of Oscar Wilde: Catholicism, Folklore and Ireland (Palgrave Macmillan 2005) will doubtless occasion revaluations of Wilde's writings, likewise elicit challenges from minimizers of Wilde's Roman Catholic heritage. Killeen's thesis—that Roman Catholicism, especially the western Irish variety, looms more significantly within Wilde's work than many others believe—is well presented (Killeen obviously knows Wilde's corpus and relevant secondary materials). Following a sensible "Introduction," which outlines Killeen's contention that insufficient attention has been paid to the impact of Catholicism upon Wilde's life and writings, comes a second, "Child and Man: the Development of a Catholic Mind." Here Killeen suggests that despite the Protestantism of Wilde's parents, the young man imbibed Irish Catholicism, not just because of its ritual; its folk elements and the latitudinarian lifestyles that it permitted appealed much more to him than the outlook and practice of much British Protestantism. Next come chapters structured along chronological lines, moving forward from such Wilde works as the early poem, "Requiescat." The death of Wilde's sister, Isola, in 1867, combined with Wilde's growing interest in Catholicism, undergird this poem. "Requiescat" was his attempt, after seven years, to come to terms with the girl's death. [End Page 317]
We move on to "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." framed as a work substantially inspired by Catholicism, wherein an alternative lifestyle to the standard Victorian admiration of heterosexuality and marriage is proposed. Perhaps a seesaw of sexuality creates sensationalism in Salome, which may have come under the Lord Chamberlain's ban not so much because of its biblical theme but because of the way it presents biblical authority's relevance to Victorian life. Killeen's perception of Iokanaan as exemplifying all the harshness, misogyny, and life-denial in (chiefly Protestant) Christianity, as contrasted to a more life-promoting Christianity found in Salome herself, will probably startle many, particularly those who find the play strongly misogynistic. Salome's kissing and biting the severed head of Iokanaan is analogous to Catholic ritual and belief concerning Transubstantiation, Killeen contends in what is certainly a radical, but plausible interpretation. Again Wilde's interest in alternative lifestyles intertwines with his literary creativity. His awareness of the folk elements underlying much of Irish Catholicism is evident, witness how the full moon motivates Salome's seemingly excitable (or her seemingly irrational) behavior as she dances. Hers is instinctual behavior, and the ritualistic dancing might be linked to Catholic ritualism. The blending of femininity and divinity with love and figurative marriage brings to my mind—though I am sure that neither author would have consciously thought of the other's using kindred themes—Patmore's The Unknown Eros, which lacks the sensationalism of Salome.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, argues Killeen, we confront not just traditional literary Gothicism by way of the animated portrait and violence mingled with supernaturalism, but modifications of such Gothicism into considerations of a lifestyle, that is, Dorian's, that leaves behind, not gently, what might have been his future as Sybil's husband for more and more participation in male-related circumstances, which lead to violence and destruction. The alternative lifestyles to which Dorian is introduced, first in rather low-key terms by Basil, then in greater intensity by Lord Henry, evoke Wilde's own dangerous trajectory in treading alternative pathways, such treadings probably heightened by his interests in Catholicism and its linkage to Irish folk traditions.
To be sure, similar experiments with theme and form are wrought to greater artistry in The Importance of Being Earnest and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its repeated themes of masking, the former bears out the idea that jest often overlays truth, which might otherwise be too harsh to bear. Repetitions in Earnest may be outgrowths of Catholic ritual, as may be the blurred gender issues, most evident in Lady Bracknell, though not absent from the young characters. The poem, in its freedom with ballad techniques and themes, likewise emphasizes Wilde's concern about Christ's forgiveness for sinners, especially with those whose sins are embedded in love relationships, and for [End Page...