Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 1

The Tired Chameleon: A Study in Hues

Consider the chameleon. A reptile with a long tail and a long tongue, with the capacity to change the color of its skin to the hues against which it is set -- the chameleon embodies the very shade-shifting characteristic of Oscar Wilde's vision of art and the spaces it inscribes. Most particularly, the chameleon's behavior collapses the border between art and nature, a reptilian enactment of Wilde's own program for life and letters.

Almost from the start of his career, Oscar Wilde proposes a new kind of aesthetic reading. In order for his contemporaries to understand his theories, they must not rely on what is written between the covers of a book alone, they must also read him. He stands carnation, lily, or sunflower in hand and dares the reader to read, while at the same time admonishing us to see (or read) the object "as in itself it really is not." Which is to say: the reader must both read the artist/object and read past him at the same time. The function of an artist is to dissolve into the hues of his art, not of his personality. "In art, don't you see," he writes to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, "there is no first person."

Therefore, the chameleon queers the space it sits in, asking us to negotiate where the background leaves off and the life begins, being continually in motion, both surface and symbol. In other words, the chameleon's shift in hue is a Wildean gesture of art-making: the shift arrests the background and the figure. Paradoxically however, in the act of shifting to look like the background, the figure calls attention to its own difference. In 1895, that difference constituted both the art of Wilde and the life he was tried for.

--Sarah Blake

Aubrey Beardsley, (1872-1898)
Mademoiselle de Maupin of Theodore Gautier

Gautier's belief in "art for art's sake" was a rallying cry for the Aesthetes in Wilde's circle. Shown here are two proofs by Beardsley for Mlle. de Maupin, a transvestite character Gautier created. Her gender-bending representations fit well into the Wildean aesthetic.

The Spirit Lamp, 4 May 1893

An earlier incarnation of The Chameleon , this Oxonion undergraduate magazine, edited by Lord Alfred Douglas, contains a controversial letter written by Wilde to Douglas, for which Wilde was blackmailed. The letter was read aloud at Wilde's first trial, Lord Queensberry stating, "I hear you were thoroughly well blackmailed for a disgusting letter you wrote to my son". To which Oscar Wilde replied, "The letter was a beautiful letter, and I never write except for publication." Indeed, the letter appeared in The Spirit Lamp transformed and translated into a sonnet by the French poet, Louys. The epigraph above the sonnet reads: Sonnet. A letter written in prose poetry by M. Oscar Wilde to a friend, and translated into rhymed poetry by a poet of no importance. Not only did Wilde's circle make truth of his contention that his letter was art, but Wilde hereby slips the noose held out to him that swings on the gibbet of genre, insisting that beauty evades its borders, letter, prose-poem, or sonnet.

Letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, January 1893 :

My Own Boy, Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that
those rose-leaf lips of yours should have been made no less for
music of song than for madness of kisses. Your slim gilt soul
walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo
loved so madly, was you in Greek days.

Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to
Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of
Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely
place - it only lacks you; but go to Salisbury first. 

Always, with undying love, yours, 

The Chameleon Volume 1, Number 1. London: Gay and Bird, 1894.

An undergraduate Oxford magazine whose first and only edition appeared in December of 1894. Edited by John Francis Bloxam, The Chameleon was intended to follow in the footsteps of The Spirit Lamp , an earlier Oxonian undergraduate magazine edited by Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Both magazines celebrate homosexual love, and The Chameleon , whose printing numbered only one hundred copies, sparked an immediate furor in the London press, claimed to be "an insult to the animal creation," and "garbage and offal."

The public reception of The Chameleon registered an instance of the subsequently fatal misreading of Wilde's aesthetic. Though The Chameleon had many authors, only one is put on trial. Just as Justice Wills placed Wilde at the center of a circle of corruption, the reading public (mis)placed Wilde at the heart of the magazine, as author of "The Priest and the Acolyte" a story about the carnal love between a priest and his altar boy. Wilde had neither written the story (its author was attributed to be John Edgar Bloxam, the magazine's editor) nor admired it, stating that the story was "too direct," without "nuance," though it was "at moments poisonous: which is something." In fact, Wilde's contribution had been the three pages of epigrams, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young," which are set at the beginning of the magazine. Much like the Preface to the first edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray , the "Phrases and Philosophies" are the bulwark the reader must breach before entering the gardens and chambers of the text: Wilde's contribution thereby defines what follows.

Sonnet :

Hyacinthe! O mon coeur! jeune dieu doux et blond!
Tes yeux sont la lumiere de la mer! ta bouche,
Le sang rouge du soir ou mon soleil se couche...
Je t'aime, enfant calin, cher aux bras d'Appollon.

Tu chantais, et ma lyre est moins douce, le long
Des rameaux suspendus que la brise effarouche,
A fremir, que ta voix a chanter, quand je touche
Tes cheveux couronnes d acanthe et de houblon.

Mais tu pars! tu me fuis pour les Portes d Hercule;
Va! rafraichis tes mains dans le clair crepuscule
Des choses ou descend l'ame antique. Et reviens,

Hyacinthe adore! hyacinthe! hyacinthe!
Car je veux voir toujours dans les bois syriens
Ton beau corps etendu sur la rose et l'absinthe.

Robert S. Hichens, (1864-1950)
The Green Carnation. London: William Heinemann, 1894. First Edition.

The sign of a green carnation worn in a lapel became popularly associated with Wilde and his crowd of friends. When asked what the carnation signified, Wilde responded: "Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess." The hysteria surrounding the green carnation and what it might mean is entertainingly depicted in R. S. Hichens' novel, The Green Carnation , published just before Wilde's trials. In the novel, Mr. Amarinth, only loosely disguised as Oscar Wilde, is characterized as the high priest of "the philosophy to be afraid of nothing." Though the novel ambivalently probes the meanings latent in Wilde's "surface of symbols," the novel itself was interpreted as documentary rather than fictional by the reading public, a fact which only contributed to the fury around Wilde at the time of his trials.


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
The Portrait of W. H. in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, No. 885.

This narrative essay proposes the daring theory that Shakespeare addressed his sonnets to a boy-actor in his company, Will Hughes. Unfolding in a manner worthy of Holmes and Watson, the essay proceeds as a dialogue between two friends, one of whom becomes increasingly drawn into proving the theory, conveyed by the internal evidence of the sonnets themselves. The narrator/reader thereby illustrates a Wildean reading of Shakespeare, and gives us a primer as to how to read both what is there on the page--and not--at the same time. The figure of Willie Hughes here operates very much like a green carnation the men might wear in their lapel, belief in him akin to membership in a society of men who can read Shakespeare in the Wildean way.


Vernon Lee, pseudo. for Violet Paget, (1865-1935)
Lady Tal in Vanitas: Polite Stories. London: John Lane, 1911.

A short story written by Vernon Lee, aesthetic critic and "New Woman" writer, "Lady Tal" exposes the shaky borderline between art and life which Wilde also shapeshifts against. Vernon Lee's story not only demonstrates the culture of the chameleon, but also crosses the boundaries between traditional male and female behavior, the indeterminacy of gender underlying the indeterminate nature of art's relation to the life it proposes to represent. Jervase Marion, a novelist very much alike Henry James, is reduced by the end of the story to a feminine caricature, nicknamed Maryanne by the handsome and dashing neophyte writer, Lady Tal. Her story becomes his story, so the masculine artist is shown to be entirely at the mercy of his feminine object who is also an artist. Like Wilde, Vernon Lee asks the question: How does one distinguish the artist from his art?

W.B. Yeats, (1865-1939)
Collected Poems. London: Macmillan, 1933.

When Yeats collected his early poems in this edition, he gave them the heading "Crossways." These works, written before The Picture of Dorian Gray , manifest a shared climate with Wilde. The culture of the chameleon is here set in borderlands of mist and dreams and moonlight, at the water's edge, where "eve has hushed the feathered ways, / With vapoury footsole by the water's drowsy blaze." Through the many voices sung out in the ballads and in the short lyrics of lost love, Yeats weaves a pattern of image and symbol, beautiful and intoxicating as a vision. Though Yeats work will diverge strongly from this early aestheticism, the chameleon's colors are imprinted on this first book; Wilde's remark, "all art is at once surface and symbol," is an apt description of the patterns of these poems.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Ward, Locke and Co. 1891. Copy number 44 of 250 large paper copies signed by Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray. in Lippincott's Monthly Gazzette July 1890. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1890. First appearance.

Perhaps Wilde's most notorious work, the novel appeared first in magazine form in America and was then published in England in 1891. A pastiche of late-Victorian styles, the novel equally encompasses the sensational and the aesthetic, and throws the idolatrous love between men right into the teeth of the times. Dorian Gray, the gay gilt lad that adorned Wilde's letters, appears here as the heartless beautiful object at once adored and feared by Basil Hallward, the artist, and Lord Henry, the aesthete. Dorian is given eternal life by the picture painted of him by Basil Hallward; as Dorian ages and sins, the picture becomes hideous and twisted though the face of the man remains unmarked and unlined. In this novel, the shifts of the chameleon are everywhere marked. Which is the evildoer the novel asks: artist? object? critic? The triangle erected between Dorian, Basil, and Lord Henry implicates them all. Characteristically, when asked which character most reflected himself, Wilde replied: Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be--in other ages, perhaps."

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