Jessica Sun : Chapter I § iv

Wilde the Classicist


“Nay, it is Narcissus, his own paramour,
Those are the fond and crimson lips no woman can allure”

From the abundant collection of classical myths Ovid provided for the imagination of the post-classical world, the figure on which Wilde was most fixated was Narcissus. The classical myth of mistaken identity, excessive self-love and eventual self-destruction was “a tale to which Wilde was repeatedly drawn”.[2] His initial interest in Narcissus may have been simply an aesthetic one. The mythical character, especially as he appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – golden hair, ivory limbs, red and white complexion (Met.III.526-30) – represented to Wilde the ideal type of classical male beauty. In amorous letters, Wilde would describe his young lover, the handsome Lord Alfred Douglas, as Narcissus-like,[3] and Narcissus became the aesthetic prototype for Dorian Gray, a comparison Lord Henry Wotton makes upon first seeing Dorian’s portrait (p6). Dorian and Narcissus are not only visually similar, but this aesthetic association drives the supernatural plot.[4]

The romantic appeal of the Narcissus’s tragic story may have also captured Wilde’s imagination.  A version of Edgar Allen Poe’s theory that no subject is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, for Wilde the untimely end of a beautiful young man – especially a golden, classical youth – would have been an irresistibly poetic topic. As he later wrote, “To be premature is to be perfect.”[5] Wilde’s works certainly suggest that he had a fascination with lovely young men whose beauty – either taken by death or eternally preserved – would never fade. Narcissus, Endymion, Hylas, Adonis and Hyacinth are all classical icons of beauty and tragedy who appear variously in Wilde’s poetry and fiction.

His long narrative poem Charmides uses the Narcissus myth as a background into his retelling of another beautiful Greek hero who met an untimely end. Wilde’s allusions to other Greek myths shape his own Greek mythical archetype, and are used to explore the paradoxes and complexities of the Narcissus story. Charmides, first published in Poems (1881), is Wilde’s “most ambitious and evident attempt at a Keatsian long narrative poem”.[6] His adoration of Keats had inspired the elegy “The Grave of Keats”, and his own (albeit much shorter) “Endymion”, the poem “On the Auction of Keats’ love letters” (“these are the letters which Endymion wrote”), along with numerous Keatsian elements, stylistic and thematic, throughout his poetry. The influence of Keats on Wilde’s Charmides, a Narcissus-like beauty, is strikingly appropriate: Keats himself was like the tragic classical youth, destroyed at his physical and poetic prime. Wilde’s admiration was so profound that his perfect model of the Artist, Peter Raby argues, “was based on Keats, who embodied most of the necessary qualifications: poetic genius, physical beauty, public persecution, and early death.”[7]

Charmides begins with an almost ballad-like opening: “He was a Grecian lad, who coming home / With pulpy figs and wine from Sicily / Stood at his galley’s prow”. The introduction of the “Grecian lad” has the tone of a folksong, introducing Wilde’s tendency to present a “world of myth mediated by English literary tradition”, as he “[maps] English landscape onto Greek topography.”[8] Wilde does this, perhaps, to associate himself further with Keats, who had used the English landscape out of necessity rather than choice, having never visited Greece.

By the first stanza, Charmides is already suggested as possessing a youthful, carefree beauty, as he stands eagerly at the ship’s prow and “let[s] the foam / Blow through his crisp brown curls unconsciously”. But his innocence and purity is soon lost when, alone in the Parthenon, Charmides is overcome with desire for the statue of Athena, and ravishes the cold marble image of the virgin goddess. Charmides falling in love with a likeness immediately evokes

Narcissus, and this theme of misdirected desire would also inspire the pivotal moment in Dorian Gray. After Charmides hurries from the temple, he seeks “a little stream” (151) to take his rest, where “on the green bank he lay” (157), a scene which has strong overtones of Ovid’s Narcissus. Wilde specifies that Charmides is familiar with the landscape, “for oftentimes with boyish careless shout / The green and crested grebe he would pursue, / Or snare in woven net the silver trout” (152-54), just as Narcissus, the hunter, is brought to his fateful spring, weary and thirsty from the chase (Met.III.515-16). In Narcissistic imitation, “he on the running water gazed with strange / and secret smile” (162), whilst naively cherishing his own instance of misdirected love. A few stanzas later, when his sleeping form is found by passing woodmen, Charmides is directly compared to Narcissus, as well as other classical figures of remarkable beauty:

[They] marvelled much that any lad so beautiful could seem,
Nor deemed him born of mortals, and one said,
‘It is young Hylas, that false runaway
who with a Naiad now would make his bed,
Forgetting Herakles’, but others, ‘Nay,
It is Narcissus, his own paramour,
Those are the fond and crimson lips no woman can allure.’
And when they nearer came a third one cried,
‘It is young Dionysus who has hid
His spear and fawnskin by the river side’.

Narcissus and Hylas are evoked by Charmides’ recumbent form by the water, while the comparison to Dionysus suggests the wild, unrestrained sexuality of Bacchic rituals, alluding again to Charmides’ uncontrollable urges the night before. Similarly, the following passage from Dorian Gray – where Basil lists the various poses and costumes of his model and muse – shows how Wilde reuses the catalogue of classical icons of beauty and eroticism to define his characters and combine themes from several mythological tropes:

I had drawn you as Paris in dainty armour, and as Adonis with huntsman’s cloak and polished boar-spear. Crowned with heavy lotus-blossoms you had sat on the prow of Adrian’s barge, gazing across the green turbid Nile. You had leant over the still pool of some Greek woodland, and seen in the water’s silent silver the marvel of your own face. (p110)

 Both passages feature classical icons of homoeroticism: Antinous, the Emperor Hadrian’s young Greek lover who drowned in the Nile, and Hylas, Herakles’ teenage beloved, lured into the watery depths by a crowd of lovely nymphs, and even Narcissus, with his excessive self-love, was thought to represent “sexual sameness”[9]. Beautiful boys, eroticism, water and death tie these myths to each other, and subsequently express the prevalent themes within both stories. In Dorian Gray, these myths represents the appreciation of male beauty by male viewers, as Dorian poses for his portrait “with the air of a young Greek martyr” (p20) in front of the two other men.[10] In Charmides, his Narcissus-like position by the edge of a stream and comparison with Hylas foreshadows Charmides’ death by drowning.

Charmides was criticised over-elaborative and too ambitious: the poem was described as an overwhelming catalogue of intertextual references and descriptions, “cloying from its very sweetness”.[11] But Wilde’s purpose is misunderstood. The “dense layers of superfluous ornamentation”[12] are in fact essential for establishing continuity with the Ovidian tradition, and Wilde’s elaborate descriptions of the landscape conjure Ovid’s lush imagery. As Charmides retreats to the forest, for example, the stanza might seem over-descriptive:

Down the steep rock with hurried feet and fast
Clomb the brave lad, and reached the cave of Pan,
And heart the goat-foot snoring as he passed
And leapt upon a grassy knoll and ran
Like a young fawn unto an olive wood
Which in a shady valley by the well-built city stood.

But Wilde juxtaposes the “shady valley” with the “well-built city” to signify the entrance to Ovidian wilderness. Comparing Charmides to a fawn, with a pun on faun, reflects his previous unrestrained, animal desire, as well as evoking the Ovidian myth of Actaeon, who had similarly suffered divine punishment – transformed into a deer and slain by his own hounds – from another virgin goddess. Rather than being a virtuosic display of his classical knowledge, Wilde intentionally uses symbolic and mythic overlap to compare his own hero to a particular mythic archetype, and to attribute the elements of all these figures to Charmides – beauty, youth, naïve passion and eventual tragedy – adding a classical depth which heightens the romance of his narrative.

Charmides’ drowned body, rescued by the mermaids and sea gods, is safely brought to land in Part II, and he is situated again in a very Ovidian setting, full of Dryads and other mythological beings, where mortals may see “young Hyacinth / Hurling the polished disk”, and – to suggest the overarching presence of Narcissus – the grassy banks are dotted with “a few narcissi here and there”. The Naiad who falls in love with Charmides upon discovering his lifeless body definitively marks Ovid’s retelling of the Narcissus myth as Wilde’s preferred version. The Naiad, who like Echo suffers from an impossible love for the unresponsive Narcissus, takes her role as the rejected lover to Charmides’ Narcissus. Ovid was the first to introduce Echo into Narcissus’ story, and this innovation, which brings together the psychological extremes of pure selfhood and pure otherness[13], is an idea Wilde begins to experiment with in Charmides, and comes into full fruition in Dorian Gray, in the doomed romance between Dorian and Sybil. Echo’s love for Narcissus introduces “an odd pairing of complementary follies: the woman who cannot express what is inside herself paired with the man who cannot respond to anything outside himself.”[14] The nymph-like Sybil, likewise, exists only as a replica – indeed, an echo – of Shakespeare’s beautiful heroines. She “mimic[s] a passion that I do not feel” (p84), while Dorian, as he becomes more and more Narcissistic, relates to others like Sybil only in context of his own image and cult of beauty: he wants “to see the world worship the woman who is mine” (p75), and tells her disdainfully that “the world would have worshipped you, and you would have borne my name.” (p85)

Wilde’s idea of mythic overlap and characters adopting mythical tropes has its beginnings in Charmides. When the Naiad speaks amorously to Charmides’ lifeless form, she describes the perfection of the setting for mythological romance:

 …surely the place was made
For lovers such as we; the Cyprian Queen,
One arm around her boyish paramour,
Strays often there at eve, and I have seen
The moon strip off her misty vestiture
For young Endymion’s eyes.

By evoking Venus and Adonis, and Endymion and Selene, Wilde again uses similar myths to add to the profundity of Charmides’ fate. The death of Adonis, like Narcissus, is the birth of a flower, the anemone, and Endymion’s loveliness is forever preserved in an eternal, deathly sleep, reminiscent of Charmides’ beautiful but motionless body. Both Charmides and the Naiad have illicit, perverted desires for still and lifeless objects, for which they are both punished by divine power. They are united in death, which is where most of Wilde’s favourite young Greek heroes tend to end up. Although the long narrative poem is about the consequences of misdirected desire, there is no clear moral message: Charmides, whose death is a tragedy worthy of Hyacinth or Hylas, is portrayed by Wilde as the romantic hero, never as debauched or depraved.

It is this very ambiguity which is at the heart of Wilde’s fascination with the classical world. Narcissus, although Wilde’s favourite, is but an example of classicism which represents a paradox of thought. Prophesised by Tiresias to live a long life so long as he did not know himself (Met.III.432-3), Narcissus is “an odd inversion of the Delphic ‘know thyself’, which was usually a recipe for survival”.[15] Under the influence of this dichotomy, Wilde would later pen the paradox, “Only the shallow know themselves.”[16] Greek philosophy advises us to know ourselves, but Greek myth suggests otherwise. The mirroring and mistaken identity in the Narcissus fable represented to Wilde the “self as having multiple possibilities”, which explains why mirrors, masks and portraits were recurring motifs in his works. [17] It is a misconception to think of ancient Greece as hedonistic, effeminate or entirely Dionysian. The appeal of Hellenism was that it encompassed and celebrated the dichotomy between Apollonian restraint and Dionysian freedom, and the need for a balance between them. With Plato on one hand and Euripides on another, the collective Greek mind was well-rounded and understood the necessary antithesis represented by Apollo and Dionysus, “two equally important aspects of the human psyche, [which] alternates between conscious self-discipline and emotional self-abandonment.” [18] This explains the puzzling presence of the “grave-browed Milton” in “Pan”, and the initial conflict between “[drifting] with every passion” and “ancient wisdom and austere control” in “Hélas”. As Wilde matured as a poet and a writer, he would come to realise that it was not a conflict at all, as it initially appears in these poems, but an essential duality. Ten years later, in Dorian Gray, Wilde’s concept of the paradoxes of antiquity would emerge developed and refined: Dorian’s portrait, for example, in his own clothes and his own time, is an “unguarded” representation of Basil’s affections, no longer obscured and sanctified through figures of classical art.[19] While the Greek aesthetic sanctifies, it also highly eroticizes, by imprinting Dorian’s image onto desirable mythological characters, and subsequently performs two opposing tasks simultaneously, using the mythic overlap Wilde uses in Charmides. Just as Wilde considered Keats as “literally an ancient Greek reborn in the modern world”[20], he appraisingly described Walt Whitman as “strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times”, considering him “one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people”.[21] Greek was the realm of the modern man, and Greek literature was “read as textbooks of the ethical codes of mature masculinity.”[22]

The misconception of Hellenism as a form of flamboyant, pretentious display was influenced by Wilde’s own reputation, and when the critics labelled him “narcissistic”, it had none of the classical depth, romance, beauty or complexity Wilde had envisioned.

One of the many contemporary caricatures of Wilde shows the aesthete as Narcissus gazing at himself in the pond, in a set-up that fuses aestheticism’s love of beauty and its love of Greece as elements of a silly, self-obsessed iconoclasm.[23]

Hellenism was not, Wilde eventually came to realise, about having affectations or standing out, or donning the Dionysian ivy for a life of hedonism, but about embracing the duality inherent in classicism and understanding its subtleties and nuances, which operate both harmoniously and in opposition. It may have been this very dichotomy that inspired Wilde’s love and adeptness for paradox itself.

[1] “Charmides”, Complete Poems, p107.

[2] Evangelista, p154.

[3] Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, ed. Merlin Holland (London: Harper Collins, 2003) p152, p195.

[4] Evangelista, p154.

[5] Phrases and Philosophies,, p.213

[6] Iain Ross, “Charmides and the Sphinx: Wilde’s engagement with Keats”, in Victorian Poetry, Volume 46, No.4 (West Virginia University Press, 2008) p455. The entire poem consists of 110 stanzas.

[7] Raby, p5

[8] Ross, p457.

[9] Evangelista, p128

[10] Evangelista, p182

[11] Hamilton, p105. Also see Epifanio San Juan, The Art of Oscar Wilde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967) pp22-24.

[12] San Juan, p24.

[13] Niall Rudd, “Echo and Narcissus: a Study in Duality” from The Common Spring: Essays on English and Latin Poetry, ed. Rudd (Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2005) p69.

[14] Harris and Platzner, p873.

[15] Rudd, p69.

[16] Phrases and Philosophies,, p.212

[17] Ellmann, p294.

[18] Harris and Platzner, p184.

[19] Evangelista, p153.

[20] Ross, p455.

[21] Ellmann, p162.

[22] Evangelista, p9.

[23] Evangelista, p128.


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