The Classic Genius of Oscar Wilde.
In a comprehensive volume, Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity, Kathleen Riley, Alastair J. L. Blanschard, and Iarla Manny have anthologized a series of essays from leading scholars who reveal the profound influence his Greek and Roman classical studies have on all aspects of Wilde's life and in all the major genres of his literary output, from his philosophical and critical writings to his plays. In a "thematic rather than chronological sequence" (11), the volume contains ten apropos illustrations, including a rare glimpse of Wilde's De Profundis prison manuscript, that enhance the in-depth analyses of Wilde's work. One key purpose of the volume is "to establish the interconnectedness of thought and creativity in Wilde's reception of antiquity" (11). The complex and multifaceted nature of Wilde's extensive knowledge and use of the exegesis of classical antiquity is examined first through his classical education, next within his dramas. The volume extends its investigation of Wilde to his philosophical and cultural criticisms as well as the classical connections as he threads them within his novel. According to Riley, the "volume is offered as a model of how the topic of the individual and the classical tradition might be addressed" (11). Part V, the last section, assesses Wilde and Rome.
Edward Petherbridge's forward begins with a quote from a Wilde letter to Robert Rosswhich that sets the tone for the clarity of expression voiced throughout the text. Kathleen Riley's introduction, cleverly titled "Taking Parnassus to Piccadilly," alludes to Parnassus, considered in classical studies as the home of poetry, literature, and learning, juxtaposing the image with Piccadilly, the hub of central, dynamic London. The essays in Part I, "Wilde's Classical Education," focus on Wilde's skill at marginalia and exacting note-taking. Alastair J. L. Blanshard's "Mahaffy and Wilde: A Study in Provocation" stipulates that the relationship between Mahaffy and Wilde provided challenges and provocations to Wilde's thinking, "constantly requiring his student to recalibrate and reaffirm his position" (21). Kathleen Riley, in "'All the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy': Wilde's 'Epistola' and the Euripidean Christ," reiterates examples of Wilde's impressive study skills and cites considerable Greek text, as well as Wilde's poems referencing Euripides from Wilde's Commonplace Book, his personal notebook kept at Oxford. Gideon Nisbet adds meticulousness to Wilde's classical education in "How Wilde Read John Addington Symonds's Studies of the Greek Poets." Nisbet reaffirms that when Wilde entered Oxford, he was already something of a classical prodigy "who utilized Symonds's Studies to formulate his own self-consciously dissident self-fashioning as an ambitious young author and critic" (37). Nisbet carefully elucidates Wilde's marginalia and accounts for its significance. To reinforce the importance of Wilde's study habits, Iain Ross, in "'Very fine & Semitic': Wilde's Herodotus," identifies Wilde's copious annotations regarding Herodotus to "reflect the formation of the young Hellenist and aesthete" (58). Even though "Herodotus is mentioned by name in Wilde's published work precisely once," the "wealth of its annotations [illustrates] how carefully [Wilde] read it" (57). It was not only Herodotus whom Wilde thoroughly studied. Joseph Bristow's "Wilde's Abstractions: Notes of Literae Humaniores, 1876-1878" illustrates Wilde's understanding of multiple disciplines as well as his "common sense" approach to Literae Humaniores, also known as "The Greats," which include ancient and modern philosophy together with Greek and Latin languages and the histories of ancient Greece and Rome. Bristow reinforces the fact that "Wilde's scrupulous and inventive note-taking provides a clear indication of why he graduated with a rare Double-First" (70). Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity provides additional examples of Wilde's prolific writing skills in Philip E. Smith II's "Wilde and Roman History" citing "Historical Criticism," Wilde's postgraduate essay that reflects the primacy of Hellenic thought and includes "a synthesis of philosophical, scientific, social-scientific and aesthetic approaches to cultural and historical criticism" (290). Even though Wilde's notebooks and his other writing indicated that he knew a "significant amount of material" about Roman history, Wilde "dismisses Roman historians as lacking in the spirit of historical criticism" (291). Iarla Manny's "Oscar as (Ovid as) Orpheus: Misogyny and Pederasty in Dorian Gray and Metamorphoses" reviews the data in Wilde's "Historical Criticism" notebook as well as The Commonplace Book, indicating that while Wilde had the analysis and research to refute his comment regarding Roman historians, Wilde chose not to include it in his submitted "Historical Criticism" essay.
Moving from Wilde's classical education to his theatrical acumen, Part II, "Wilde as Dramatist," begins with John Stokes's "Beyond Sculpture: Wilde's Responses to Greek Theatre in the 1880s" and pairs Wilde's experience as a spectator of classical reconstructions, which were available in the late nineteenth century, with his theory of modern theater. Stokes asserts that Wilde's interest in Greek theater revivals "was that they bore a tangential relation to the world of the professional theatre and attracted the interest of actors, managers, and designers" all of whom would benefit Wilde's goal to "play a part within the contemporary theatrical scene" (91). Clare L. E. Foster's "Wilde and the Emergence of Literary Drama, 1880-1895" provides excellent examples to delineate Wilde's extensive breadth of knowledge regarding the Greek plays experiencing a revival in non-traditional theatre places in England. Foster thoroughly studies Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and labels it a tragicomedy, illustrating a parallelism between Earnest and Greek tragedies. Isobel Hurst continues Foster's argument regarding Wilde's approach to tragicomedy in her essay, "'Tragedy in the disguise of mirth': Robert Browning, George Eliot, and Wilde." Hurst traces Wilde's interest in comedy to Aristophanes's Frogs and provides various communications between Wilde and Robert Browning, whom Wilde highly respected. Hurst suggests that Wilde uses the "basic ingredients of the plot ...shared with many contemporary farces" such as "misplaced parents, forbidden engagements, false identities..." (139). "Death by Unrequited Eros: Salome, Hippolytus, and Wilde's Inversion of Tragedy" by Kostas Boyiopoulos begins with two quotes regarding love; however, Boyiopoulos's essay focuses on Wilde's attitude toward tragedy and the influence of Pater on Wilde's understanding and embrace of Greek theater. Wilde "inverts Athenian tragedy through poetics of exaggeration, elevating what is trivial and inconsequential" (142).
"Wilde as Philosopher and Cultural Critic," Part III, begins with Leanne Grech's "Imagining Utopia: Oxford Hellenism and the Aesthetic Alternative" and focuses on the author's refutation of Linda Dowling's "influential work [on] Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian England (1944)" (161). Grech stipulates that Wilde "maintains that England is uncivilized" and posits Wilde's view of aestheticism as a "modern variation on Plato's model of education" (163). Kate Hext's "Burning with a 'hard, gem-like flame': Heraclitus and Hedonism in Wilde's Writing" continues the analysis of Greek influence on Wilde's philosophies, "refracted through the fledgling Decadent movement in Oxford...in order to explore the relationship between linear time and sensual pleasure" (195). Stefano Evangelista's "Cosmopolitan Classicism: Wilde between Greece and France," initiates his essay with Wilde's remark that "there are only two languages in the world: French and Greek" (209) and continues with his thorough analysis of Wilde's appreciation for all things French and Greek: language, culture, tradition, classics, literature, antiquity and modernity (209).
Part IV, "Wilde as Novelist: The Picture of Dorian Gray," begins with Marylu Hill's "Wilde's New Republic: Platonic Questions in Dorian Gray" re-emphasizing Wilde's training "to see the past in active conversation with the present" (231). Rather than pair Wilde's Dorian Gray with Socratic eros, as has been the typical scholarly connection, Hill identifies a parallelism between Dorian Gray and Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and "Ring of Gyges," but mostly Plato's "concern for the soul, especially the philosophical soul gone corrupt" (233). Nikolai Endres provides an excellent transition in his "From Eros to Romosexuality: Love and Sex in Dorian Gray." Endres offers direct supporting quotes in Greek from original sources and is one of the few essayists who provides a clear translation immediately beneath the specific quote. Endres suggests that Lord Henry's famous sermon on Hedonism in Dorian Gray was modeled in the style of Wilde's mentor, Pater, and that Sibyl Vane is not merely a "shadowy character" functioning as a foil to Dorian's homosexuality; Sibyl "is actually a forceful but complicated Platonic character, representing a high, almost Socratic ideal of love" (258).
In addition to Iarla Manny identifying Wilde's intense study habits in "Oscar as (Ovid as) Orpheus: Misogyny and Pederasty in Dorian Gray and Metamorphoses," the essay shifts the focus of Part IV from Platonic platitudes to the Faustian legend along with Ovid's Metamorphoses in which the story of Narcissus is "conventionally considered the most important mythological source for Oscar Wilde's sole novel" (267). Manny posits "Wilde's troubled marital relationship with Mrs. Wilde" as behavior reflected in his treatment of Sybil in Dorian Gray and as "an extension of his oedipal struggle with his mother, the overbearing Lady Wilde" (282).
In Part V, "Wilde and Rome," Shushma Malik provides a smooth transition to "The Criminal Emperor of ancient Rome and Wilde's 'true historical sense.'" Malik pairs Wilde's biographical essay, "Pen, Pencil, and Poison: A Study in Green," about the artist, critic, and serial poisoner, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, with The Picture of Dorian Gray since "both encourage a decadent, guilt-free attitude to past and present crime" (306).Continuing with an analysis of Roman influence on the main characters in Wilde's work, Serena S. Witzke's "'I knew I had a brother!': Fraternity and Identity in Plautus's Menaechmi and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest" asserts that Plautus's play and Wilde's play are "rarely considered together" (321). Witzke argues that "Menaechmi was among the sources for Earnest, in theme, plot characterization, and character development" (321). Witzke created charts clearly indicating the parallelism between the philosophy and dialogue in Plautus's Menaechmi and Wilde's Earnest (329-30). In addition, the charts' details strongly suggest that Wilde borrowed directly from Plautus's Menaechmi, but Wilde was able to enhance the character development of Algernon and Jack so that the motivation for their seemingly bad behavior is more evident.
Through close analysis of unpublished material, Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity offers new perspectives on his most celebrated and canonical texts by adopting a uniquely multidisciplinary approach with insights into Wilde's classical sources that will be highly useful for in-depth studies of Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity delineates the influence and breadth of Wilde's knowledge in the Classics, offering specific examples in the original Greek, French, Latin, and English that provide excellent source material for Wilde's fascinating essays, plays, and his novel. Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity has a comprehensive bibliography and provides a lasting contribution to Wildean scholarship.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Title Annotation:||Oscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity|
|Author:||Magid, Annette M.|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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