W. B. Yeats (review date 1891)
SOURCE: Yeats, W. B. “Oscar Wilde's Last Book.” In Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, edited by John P. Frayne, pp. 202-05. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.
[In the following review, which was originally published in 1891, Yeats provides a mixed assessment of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories.]
This review of Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, London, 1891, appeared in United Ireland, September 26, 1891.
From the beginning of their acquaintance, Yeats regarded Oscar Wilde more highly as a wit and figure of legend than as an author. He met Wilde at the soirées of William Ernest Henley, one of the first magazine editors to print Yeats's poetry. Wilde was kind to him, invited Yeats to his home for Christmas dinner (probably in 1889), and had Yeats tell fairy tales to Wilde's son, whom Yeats thoroughly frightened by mentioning a giant. Burdened by a sense of his provincial awkwardness, Yeats was awed by the splendor of Wilde's personality and ménage, but in retrospect Yeats thought Wilde's address contained too much artifice.
Before their meeting, Wilde had reviewed Yeats's book of fairy tales for Woman's World (February, 1889), and he had helped the reception of Yeats's first volume, The Wanderings of Oisin, with two reviews (Woman's World, March, 1889, and Pall Mall Gazette, July 12, 1889). He was kind to Yeats's poems although he found “strange crudities and irritating conceits” in them.
Neither this review nor Yeats's later review of Wilde's drama A Woman of No Importance was wholly favorable. Although not conspicuously stained by Ibsenism, Wilde's dramas lacked that poetry which Yeats most loved in the theater, and his somewhat negative reaction to “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” may have been caused by Wilde's satire on palmistry.
Yeats thought that the true basis for Wilde's fame lay in his willingness to stay in England and face judicial vengeance and public disgrace. In A Vision, Yeats placed Wilde in the nineteenth phase of the moon, that of the assertive man, a phase which marked the beginnings of “the artificial, the abstract, the fragmentary, and the dramatic” (A Vision, London, 1937, New York, 1956, p. 148).
We have the irresponsible Irishman in life, and would gladly get rid of him. We have him now in literature and in the things of the mind, and are compelled perforce to see that there is a good deal to be said for him. The men I described to you the other day under the heading, “A Reckless Century,”1 thought they might drink, dice, and shoot each other to their hearts' content, if they did but do it gaily and gallantly, and here now is Mr. Oscar Wilde, who does not care what strange opinions he defends or what time-honoured virtue he makes laughter of, provided he does it cleverly. Many were injured by the escapades of the rakes and duellists, but no man is likely to be the worse for Mr. Wilde's shower of paradox. We are not likely to poison any one because he writes with appreciation of Wainwright2—art critic and poisoner—nor have I heard that there has been any increased mortality among deans because the good young hero of his last book tries to blow up one with an infernal machine; but upon the other hand we are likely enough to gain something of brightness and refinement from the deft and witty pages in which he sets forth these matters.
“Beer, bible, and the seven deadly virtues have made England what she is,” wrote Mr. Wilde once; and a part of the Nemesis that has fallen upon her is a complete inability to understand anything he says. We should not find him so unintelligible—for much about him is Irish of the Irish. I see in his life and works an extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity. “I labour under a perpetual fear of not being misunderstood,” he wrote, a short time since, and from behind this barrier of misunderstanding he peppers John Bull with his pea-shooter of wit, content to know there are some few who laugh with him. There is scarcely an eminent man in London who has not one of...
(The entire section is 1750 words.)