Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 3

The Scarlet Woman: Wilde and Religion

During his years at university, the Roman Catholic Church was a strong influence on Oscar Wilde. The artist adorned his rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford with pictures of the madonna and saints, claiming to be "caught in the fowler's snare, in the wiles of the Scarlet Woman" -- the Roman Church. The attraction of Catholicism at this point in Wilde's life was an attraction to the "difference," the otherness of the Church, similar to the "difference" he would spend his life flaunting.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, High Anglicanism, Anglo-Catholicism, and Roman Catholicism were regarded as "perversions" in many Protestant circles. Roman Catholics and Tractarians were said to bear "an element of foppery even in dress and manner; a fastidious, maundering, die-away effeminacy, which is mistaken for purity and refinement," according to Charles Kingsley. Such accusations, by this time, were equated with charges of homosexuality. The aesthetic brand of Roman Catholicism which would significantly influence Wilde's later life and writings first became known to the artist while at Oxford, as can be observed in his literary works and self-stylization of the period.

--Frederick S. Roden

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
"Wasted Days" in Kottabos Volume 3, No. 2 (1877).

Several of Wilde's poems were published in Kottabos, the magazine of Trinity College, Dublin, where the artist had begun his studies. In Wasted Days, the poet writes fondly of a fair slim boy not made for this world's pain. In this poem, the narrator ponders an aesthetic youth, an idealized Platonic creation. Wilde published a volume of collected poems in 1881, including this work. The later-published version of the poem changes the gender of the subject to a Lily-girl and the title to Madonna Mia.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
Poems. London: David Bogue, 1881.

Wilde's 1881 Poems met with controversy at Oxford. The title "Madonna Mia" of the feminized version of "Wasted Days" suggests the Virgin Mary, an unreachable and idealized female form. The sexual politics in the poem are altered from a "carpe diem" mentality for the male aesthetic perfection of the original work to a poetics in praise of a beauty which is ultimately intangible, perhaps demonstrating a truly Hellenic sexual aesthetic in this dichotomy. The 1881 Poems also includes works on Easter and Holy Week, in which the poet celebrates a sensual beauty which he finds as much in Christian mythology as in classical Hellenism.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
"Ave Maria," Kottabos Volume 3, No. 8 (1879).

"Ave Maria" utters high Church praise of the Virgin Mary, carnal and aestheticized. The work was later included in the 1881 Poems. In this poem, Wilde writes of an angel bearing a lily. A hallmark of Marianism in Christian art, the lily was often associated with Wilde in caricatures of the aesthete.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
Ravenna. Oxford: Shrimpton, 1878.

The 1878 Shrimpton edition of Ravenna, a poem which won Wilde the Newdigate Prize at Oxford, is a particularly aesthetic-appearing publication, suggesting the audience for whom the work was intended. In the poem, the interplay between the ancient Greek and timeless Christian is played out. Set in this rich cultural framework, the speaker exclaims, "O fond Hellenic dream!" On hearing a convent's vesper bell, he changes his tune: "Alas! Alas! These sweet and honied hours / Had whelmed my heart like some encroaching sea, / And drowned all thoughts of black Gethsemane." The religion of nature overlaps with the respective beauty and sensuality to be found in Christian mythology, as Wilde finds a place for Christianity within secular cultural history.

"The Bard of Beauty" in Time, July 1880.

In "The Bard of Beauty," a caricature of Wilde appearing in the popular periodical Time, lilies miraculously grow from the ground where Wilde's feet touch. The picture is similar to many of Christ on the cross, from the foot of which lilies grow. Curiously, an object which resembles a pickle is sketched in the corner of the picture. A similar if not identical image representing domesticity is to be found in religious art through the centuries, serving as a reminder of the mundane and mortal in the face of the divine. Perhaps the "perversity" that Victorian Protestants found in the medieval and Roman Catholic that in turn attracted Wilde might help to explain why the aesthete's self-stylization and society's representation of him both involve elements of the sacred. This caricature, which may be found on the cover of the catalogue for this exhibition, embodies the Wildean spirit. It demonstrates the author's active parody of both self and society by means of the pose, which is likewise parodied by the very society upon which the artist comments. The artist inhabits the queerspace of the parodic that is used by his detractors, appropriating it in an act of empowerment. While subject to parody, as chameleon the Wildean artist in society nevertheless remains subject of its control.




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