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Wilde's Intentions: The Artist in His Criticism.

LAWRENCE DANSON. Pp. x+198. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. [pounds]30.

In his introduction to the Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland gave as his opinion that 'the most interesting and entertaining book of essays that Oscar Wilde wrote was Intentions, in which he really gave rein to his imagination'. Even in this briefest and most loyal of salutes to what on its publication in 1891 was a generally well received volume, there is a hint of its inherently ambiguous, elusive, and self-contradictory nature. Wilde's essays collected in this book are works of imagination, ventures in literary theory which repeatedly subvert their own ostensible terms of reference, and use unconventional critical forms, such as speculative biography and dramatic dialogue, to argue for criticism's eminence among the creative arts. Professor Danson has set himself the formidable task of demonstrating what Wilde was up to - what his intentions were - in writing, revising, and collecting the essays from which Intentions was compiled, and what reviewers and other commentators initially made of the work. In the process, he seeks to read Intentions in the context of Wilde's other work and life-performances, in order to establish its place in the larger literary, political, and legal processes which constructed Wilde as a representative figure of his time.

The precise choice of the four essays which made up Intentions was in some respects fortuitous. Wilde's initial proposal was for a book containing 'The Decay of Lying' and 'Pen, Pencil, and Poison', both of which were eventually included, together with 'The Portrait of Mr W.H.' This last was a bold and contentious statement (of which Professor Danson remarks, 'story or essay or hoax - one is not sure how to name the kind of thing it is') about the sexuality of Shakespeare's sonnets. (Its subtly calculated indeterminacy was coarsely reverbalized by the law at Wilde's trial in 1895.) 'The Portrait of Mr W.H.' was not finally included in Intentions, but is closely associated with it, as is the essay 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism', which Wilde considered substituting for the makeweight essay 'The Truth of Masks' in his plan for a French translation of the book. Taking advantage of the thwarted candidature which Wilde proposed at different times for these two essays as components of his book, Professor Danson pragmatically takes all six essays as the actual repertoire of Intentions, and devotes a chapter to each of them.

Professor Danson's detailed enquiry into the genesis, evolution, and reception of these essays is a substantial contribution to work on Wilde. Each chapter shows why, redescribed and liberated by modern literary theory and cultural politics, Wilde in recent years has at last escaped the stereotypes - the writer of superficial witty plays, the disgraced sexual pervert, the victim of late Victorian hypocrisy - which have entrapped him for a century. They have formed ironic epitaphs for a life so suavely ferocious in its argument for individualism and its assaults on stereotypical linguistic meanings. Wilde has now become comprehensively a more interesting figure, and this study is an invaluable case-history, taking Wilde's criticism as a central indicator of his importance.

The chapter on 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' is particularly helpful. In this chapter Danson breaks free of his customary synthesizing and balanced commentary into the exasperated enthusiasm which all Wilde's proponents must often feel. 'The essay is an epitome of Wilde's career. At times it makes you want to cheer, and at times to cry. It is wise, it is good, it is quotable, but it can also be breezily inconsequential or demonstrably wrong . . . Yet for all its blindness, its manifest special pleadings and momentary failures, the essay works.' His evidence is the hostility which the essay has provoked, and continues to provoke, and he cites an attack on it, published as recently as 1995 by the American political scientist Christopher Lasch, which demonizes Wilde as the secular Messiah of a dangerous individualism. Wilde emerges from this study as a continuingly relevant and challenging intellect. Yet he also emerges as a tragically attenuated critical presence. If only his marvellous linguistic resourcefulness had not been quite so brilliantly effortless, and if only his way with consistency had not been so insultingly debonair; if only, perhaps, the language of De Profundis had not come too late.

PETER HOLLINDALE University of York
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Hollindale, Peter
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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