Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 4

Wilde at Oxford/Oxford Gone Wilde

"The two great turning points in my life," Oscar Wilde wrote in De Profundis, "were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison."

At Oxford, Wilde, in Richard Ellmann's words, "created himself." Perhaps the most important influences on Wilde at Oxford were Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and John Ruskin. The Literae Humaniores or "Greats" program that Wilde studied at Oxford centered on the history, philosophy, and literature of ancient Greece, particularly the work of Plato -- but he did not limit himself to its requirements. Wilde was exposed at Oxford to most of the major intellectual controversies of the day.

During Wilde's years at Oxford, the university was a site of considerable controversy. Within months of Wilde's matriculation in 1874, Walter Pater and the "Conclusion" to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance were being denounced from the pulpit as immoral, and a few years later attacks on Pater and Symonds, and on Aestheticism and Oxford Hellenism, including W. H. Mallock's The New Republic, forced both men to withdraw from the election for the Slade Professorship of Poetry. By 1876, two years after he arrived at the university, Wilde was already famous at Oxford for his remark about living up to his blue china -- a comment that was similarly denounced from the pulpit. In addition to Aestheticism, like many young men at Oxford, Wilde also found himself drawn to Catholicism during these years.

By the time he left Oxford for London, Wilde's double first in "Greats" (said to be the best of his year) and his Newdigate Prize for poetry, had spread his fame far beyond the confines of the university.

--Peter Chapin

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

Oscar Wilde's first collection of poems, published in 1881, contains many of the poems he wrote at Oxford. While Wilde had already earned his degree at Oxford and moved to London by the time it was published, the volume generated considerable controversy at Oxford. Shortly after its publication, the secretary of the Oxford Union requested a copy of the volume from Wilde for its library. However, several members of the Oxford Union objected, and in November 1881, the full membership voted 188 to 180 to reject Wilde's book. The secretary was then forced to return the volume to Wilde. The closeness of the vote indicates not only how divided Oxford was at that time over aestheticism, but just how controversial a figure Wilde already was in 1881. Wilde's book greeted by many reviewers with marked hostility. He was accused, as he had been by members of the Oxford Union, of merely imitating other, better poets and criticized for inconsistency and contradicting himself in the volume.

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

Oscar Wilde was awarded the Newdigate Prize for Poetry for Ravenna in his last year at Oxford. Wilde's winning the Newdigate Prize and his earning a double first in "Greats" helped to spread his fame beyond the university. Previous winners of the Newdigate Prize included Matthew Arnold; W. H. Mallock, the author of The New Republic; and William Money Hardinge, the undergraduate whose homoerotic relationship with Walter Pater led Benjamin Jowett, the powerful master of Balliol, to deny Pater an important promotion.

Walter Pater, (1839-1894)
Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873.

In De Profundis Wilde called Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance the " book which has had such a strange influence over my life." Wilde read The Renaissance during his first term at Oxford, and theimpression that it made on him can hardly be overstated. In his famous "Conclusion," Pater urged his readers to seek not the fruit of experience, but experience itself. To burn always, he wrote, with a hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. When Lord Henry Wotton influences Dorian in The Picture of Dorian Gray, telling him to "Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations," his language both echoes and parodies Pater's "Conclusion." The Renaissance and its notorious "Conclusion" met with considerable controversy at Oxford and undoubtedly damaged Pater's academic career. Within months of Wilde's arrival at Oxford, Pater's book was denounced from the pulpit by the bishop for immorality. Pater withdrew the "Conclusion" from the second edition of The Renaissance - though it was not enough to win him the Slade Professorship.

John Ruskin, (1819-1900)
From The Illustrated London News, 1874.

John Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, was one of the two people that Wilde said that he most wanted to meet when he matriculated at Oxford. (The other was Walter Pater.) Wilde succeeded in meeting Ruskin during his first year, attending his lectures of Florentine Art in the fall of 1874. But, Wilde's contact with Ruskin was not limited to the lectures. The previous spring, to teach them the pleasures of useful muscular work, Ruskin had asked his students to assist him in constructing a flower-bordered country road in Ferry Hinksey outside of Oxford. From November to the end of the term, Wilde rose uncharacteristically early every morning to join Ruskin and his roadbuilders in Ferry Hinksey, where Wilde later joked he had the privilege of pushing "Mr. Ruskin's especial wheelbarrow."

John Addington Symonds, (1840-1893)
In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1893.

Wilde began a correspondence with John Addington Symonds while he was still at Trinity College, Dublin. In the notebooks he kept at Oxford, Wilde, who considered Symonds' prose to be the equal of Pater's and Ruskin's, copied numerous passages from Symonds' work, especially his Studies of the Greek Poets (1873). A key figure in both aestheticism and Oxford Hellenism, Symonds was also one of the most important Victorian homosexual apologists, the author of A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883) and A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891).

W. H. Mallock, (1849-1923)
The New Republic, or Culture, Faith and Philosophy in an English Country House. London: Chatto and Windus, 1878.

W. H. Mallock's The New Republic contains satiric portraits of most of the important figures at Oxford, including John Ruskin, Benjamin Jowett, and Matthew Arnold. Walter Pater appears prominently in the novel as the aesthete Mr. Rose. Mr. Rose was, as Linda Dowling has observed, the first in a long line of popular depictions of effeminate English aesthetes such as Gilbert's Bunthorne and Du Maurier's Postlewaite and Maudle. The first version of The New Republic was a series of sketches published in 1876 in Belgravia magazine in which Mr. Rose played an even larger role. The book version, with its satiric attacks on Pater, aestheticism and Oxford Hellenism, appeared in the middle of the competition for the Slade Professorship of Poetry and helped convince Pater to withdraw from the election.

"The Six-Mark Tea-Pot" in Punch, October 30, 1880.

"The Six-Mark Tea-Pot" by George Du Maurier is widely considered to be Wilde's first appearance in Punch. While the aesthetic bridegroom does not look too much like Wilde, the cartoon clearly alludes to Wilde's famous remark at Oxford that I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china. The cartoon marks the beginning of Punch's (and Du Maurier's) long relationship with Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York, 1890.

This American pirate edition includes a curious reprint of the 1881 Poems and The Picture of Dorian Gray, based on the Lippincott's Monthly Gazette edition. It is a very scarce edition, coming between the first American and first British editions and having a design reminiscent of Rennell Rodd's Rose-leaf and Apple-leaf, which Wilde helped design during his 1882 tour of America. This copy was a presentation copy from Stuart Mason, bibliographer of Wilde's works, to Fritz.

Questions and Comments

Return to: Bobst Library // NYU Libraries