- Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity ed. by Kathleen Riley, Alastair J. L. Blanshard, and Iarla Manny, and: Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years by Nicholas Frankel
In July 1896, when Oscar Wilde was in the middle of his two-year sentence of hard labor at Reading Prison, he wrote to the home secretary pleading for early release. He described himself as “one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life, the mode by which perfection could be realized, by which, and by which alone, the intellect could feel itself alive.” When deprived of books and the other “conditions necessary for healthy intellectual activity,” he wrote, the mind “becomes . . . the sure prey of morbid passions, and obscene fancies, and thoughts that defile, desecrate, and destroy” (Wilde qtd. in Frankel 57). Thanks to the merciful intervention of relatively enlightened administrators, Wilde eventually was allowed some access to books. In this time of gravest psychological and emotional need, he turned to some of the works that shaped his thinking and writing in the early days of their maturation, before he had become the fin-de-siècle aesthete par excellence, the composer of dazzlingly brilliant society plays, or the man broken by public humiliation and a draconian prison sentence.
The two studies under review frame in powerful terms the beginning and the ending of Wilde’s writerly life. Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity, edited by Kathleen Riley, Alastair J. L. Blanshard, and Iarla Manny, aims to trace the influence of classical literature and philosophy throughout Wilde’s oeuvre, with some of its most intriguing chapters exploring Wilde’s early scholarly formation. Nicholas Frankel’s Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years offers a richly detailed account of Wilde’s final five years, from the trial and his subsequent imprisonment to his lonely death in Paris in 1900.
As Riley writes in the volume’s introduction, “previous discussions of Wilde’s classicism have been sparse and piecemeal,” resulting in “a pervasive theme of Wilde’s literary output” being “unfairly neglected” (11). The collection seeks to address this lacuna, with some eighteen contributions divided into five sections: Wilde’s classical education; [End Page 688] classical echoes in his drama, his non-fiction prose, and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890); and his relationship to Rome. (Given the collection’s length, it is rather surprising that Wilde’s poetry goes unexplored, as does much of his shorter fiction.) Wilde’s classical training is not the central force shaping his intellectual development; Greek is not the key to all Wilde’s mythologies. His studies in Greek and Latin, rather, enriched Wilde’s panoply of influences, joining Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, the Romantics, the Symbolists, and countless others who informed his thinking and writing. “Especially significant,” Joseph Bristow writes in his astute assessment of the “Philosophy” notebook from Wilde’s Oxford years, “is the adept manner that Wilde developed in moving back and forth between . . . prescribed texts by Aristotle and Plato, and . . . innovative nineteenth-century works” (70). Philip E. Smith II, editor of three of Wilde’s other Oxford notebooks, offers a similar conclusion in his chapter, suggesting that Wilde cultivated “a synthesis of philosophical, scientific, social-scientific, and aesthetic approaches to cultural and historical criticism” while at university (290).
This nimble synthesis is built upon the foundation of formal instruction Wilde received from J. P. Mahaffy (at Trinity College Dublin) and Benjamin Jowett (at Oxford), relationships examined by a number of the pieces in the collection (namely, Blanshard’s and Leanne Grech’s). Other essays focus more closely on individual Wildean texts or seemingly direct lines of transmission, including Serena Witzke on Plautus’s Menaechmi as a source for The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Marylu Hill on the traces of Plato’s The Republic (c. 380-360 BCE) in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Manny on...