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35 OSCAR WILDE ON THE ROMANTICS By George Stavros (California State Polytechnic University) Despite inconsistent critical standards, Oscar Wilde's assessments of the English Romantics and Romanticism may be understood as an attempt to achieve something of the critical catholicity of Walter Pater, who had sought to discover in the arts of the "modern" age that "combination of as many excellences as possible."! Like Pater (whom he paraphrased), Wilde believed that from the marriage of Helen and Faust derived the union in the nineteenth century of classicism with romanticism - a combination of the "breadth," "sanity of purpose," and beauty of Hellenism with "the adventive, the intensified individualism, the passionate colour of the romantic spirit."^ He assumed not only that he might achieve a balanced revaluation of the Romantics (whom he sometimes deprecated), but that any such reassessment required the given artist's or critic's recognition of "the beauty of work different from his own." The failure to appreciate the individuality of an alien art form, he said, produces demonstrably unhappy results» Wordsworth saw in Endymion merely a pretty piece of Paganism, and Shelley, with his dislike of actuality, was deaf to Wordsworth's message, being repelled by its form, and Byron, that great passionate human incomplete figure, could appreciate neither the poet of the cloud nor the poet of the lake, and the wonder of Keats was hidden from him. The realism of Euripides was hateful to Sophokles.'3 As a late-nineteenth-century chapter in the history of the critical response to the English Romantics, Wilde's own pronouncements on the Romantics - ostensibly as perverse as those he cites in Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron - illustrate conflicting emphases in critical criteria» between feeling and thought, form and content, the beautiful and the good, the Keatsian and the Wordsworthian . Readers of Wilde are likely to be struck with what appears to be his perverse dismissal of Wordsworth and, conversely, his championing of Keats. On the evidence of such remarks as those of the irreverent Vivian in "The Decay of Lying," who discredits Wordsworth's finding "in stones the sermons he had already hidden there,"4 Wilde's regard for Wordsworth may be supposed to be clearly less favorable than that for Keats, whom Wilde describes elsewhere as the "forerunner" of the pre-Raphaelite and aesthetic movements - "this great renaissance of art which Keats would have so much loved, and of which he, above all others, is the seed."5 But despite his well-known caveats (often overstated for ironic effect) against an ethical criterion in literature, and against Wordsworth's nature poetry in particular, Wilde was in fact not wholly unsympathetic to attempts by Arnold, Pater, and others to applaud Wordsworth for having offered instruction in the conduct of life.0 If Wilde presumed at one point to be able to praise 36 in Wordsworth only the classical "'Laodamia,' and the fine sonnets, and the great Ode such as it is" ("Lying," pp. 21-22), his remarks cannot be taken to mean that Wilde either wholly or consistently repudiated the claims of "nature" in any sense (a view often attributed to him) or that he was able to define or develop an aesthetic based upon "classical" criteria of form such as those presumed to be found in the work of Keats or in those few poems of Wordsworth which he here singles out. Wilde's juxtaposition of Keats and Wordsworth implicitly continues a critical practice derivative of, for example, Arthur Henry Hallam's distinction in I83I between Keats's (and Tennyson 's) lyricism and Wordsworth's reflection.7 Like Swinburne, who had approved Keats "the„most absolutely non-moral of all serious writers on record,"" Wilde was to announce early his dedication to Keats's "principle of Beauty" and to an art having no "other claim but her own perfection." In his lecture on "The English Renaissance of Art," delivered during his American tour and published in Robert Ross's edition, Wilde defends Keats's "principle of Beauty" against certain aspects of Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley» Byron was a rebel and Shelley a dreamer; but in the calmness and clearness of his vision, his perfect self-control, his unerring sense...


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