‘A Very Irish Irishman.’ The Nationalist Strain in the Early Works of Oscar Wilde
‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.’ Oscar Wilde’s remarks on the importance of masks in his 1889 work ‘The Critic as Artist’ revealed the subversive and paradoxical Irishman that lurked beneath the English mask. In the years since his death in 1900, the legacy of Oscar Wilde has continued to fascinate and perplex his ablest critics. A resurgence in Oscar Wilde scholarship, due in large part to Richard Ellmann’s biography in 1989, resurrected his reputation and the fascination surrounding his life and work. In the following decades he has been fashioned a gay icon, perennially Protestant, flirtatiously Catholic, modernly Modern, and one of the greatest Victorian men of letters. We find in his reputation the same elusive paradoxical genius that he imbued in his life and work. His clever witticism that ‘life imitates art far more than art imitates life’ remains pertinent to this day.
Peeling back the layers of this complex and fascinating man, however, one is confronted with an Irishman at heart. Many would argue that Wilde is more English than Irish, that none of his plays were set in Ireland, and that his success derived from his time spent in England. This assertion fails to take into account the universal aspect of Wilde’s writing, and the place he always wrote from: his home. Upon meeting Henry James in 1881 he remarked to a shocked James that, ‘you care for places? The world is my home.’ Wilde strove to be universal in his outlook and a man of the world, but before he did this he was Irish first. James Joyce, an admirer of Wilde, remarked to Arthur Power in 1921 that, ‘I write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.’ Joyce’s comments explain the genius that is Oscar Wilde. Through mask, paradox, and wit his works were channeled through his Irishness. George Bernard Shaw, his sometimes friend and cantankerous contemporary, insisted that ‘it must not be forgotten that though by culture Wilde was a citizen of all civilized capitals, he was at root a very Irish Irishman, and as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.’
Wilde’s whole life was influenced by his Irish heritage. The steps that led to his considerable hold on English theater and swift fall from grace in the 1890s were both linked to, and consequences of, his Irish nationality. Therefore, insight into the early life and works of Oscar Wilde is essential to understanding his rise and fall in England. His poetry, poems, and plays from the late 1870s-80s are rarely read and offer little in critical study. Most critics view them as immature and lacking in the charm and wit of Wilde’s most famous plays of the 1890s, Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Oscar Wilde, calls his first play Vera, ‘a wretched play.’ Oscar Wilde’s friend and early biographer Frank Harris reiterates this sentiment in his biography, writing that his ‘early plays and poems, like his lectures, were unimportant.’ Harris may have found little importance in Wilde’s early work, but it is through examination of these pieces we see the makings of an Irish nationalist. It was during his early rise, as reflected in his works, where the mask that Wilde wore was unhinged. Growing up in Dublin to famous Irish parents forever instilled in him a love for country and the importance of being Irish. Out of his education he grew to love some of the major nineteenth century authors and poets like Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats. In studying these men, Wilde was able to re-work their ideas and subvert English society, all while combating the preconceived notions of the stereotypical Irishman. Noreen Doody echoes this sentiment, writing in Oscar Wilde: Nation and Empire that Wilde ‘both challenged and disarmed English prejudicial notions of the Irish and gained for himself an ease of movement behind the self imposed mask of gentility in the capital on empire.’ One of the most important aspects of Wilde’s education was its revelation of Greek thought embodied in his Trinity College professor John Pentland Mahaffy. Mahaffy introduced Wilde to the Greek ideal, and this love of Greece would be forever entwined with his Irish homeland. One of his earliest prose pieces ‘The Rise of Historical Criticism’ is saturated with knowledge of Greek thought, but draws stark allusions to Ireland. It was in 1874 that Wilde went to Oxford, marking his transition from Ireland to England. He would still spend summers in Ireland, but by the time he graduated in 1878, his emigration was complete. Modern criticism would have us believe this was a swift and momentous occasion for Wilde, but it was a period of turmoil and difficult change where he struggled to make a name for himself, much like his contemporary George Bernard Shaw. Ironically during this time, the Irish Nationalist Movement was unfolding and Wilde both followed and was inspired by its leaders.
The leaders of the movement, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt, were the two Irish men who influenced the artistic trajectory of Wilde’s life in the 1880s. Parnell’s intense but charismatic oratory broke with the traditional stereotype of the Irish as dirty and uneducated. Parnell’s status as the ‘uncrowned King of Ireland’ and mastery of propaganda were tools Wilde would himself use in his career. Ironically, both men would reach incredible heights, but have their lives end in tragedy. Wilde would find in Parnell a kindred spirit, the ultimate symbol of individualism. References to Parnell in his works were shadowed, but in plays like Vera, he offers support for the Irish cause, and openly refers to Parnell in ‘Soul of Man Under Socialism.’ Not to be outdone by Parnell, Michael Davitt represented the fiery Irish leader whose brush with prison life and socialist ideology would shape Wilde’s social and political framework. Wilde’s early years are perhaps more important than his triumphs in the 1890s, providing Wilde with the tools necessary in subverting society.
Wilde’s birth and childhood instilled in him the importance of being Irish from his parents who helped shape the cultural landscape of Ireland in the nineteenth century and pass on to their son a name both ‘noble and honored.’ While much has been written of Wilde’s relationship with his mother, Oscar’s relationship to his father has been little studied. William Wilde was born into a middle class Protestant family of farmers and physicians. His rise to fame in Ireland was due in large part to his expertise as an ear and eye surgeon. In the 1840s, William began setting up his own practices around Dublin. His son Oscar would later marvel at his father’s accomplishments, gushing to a friend in 1876 that, ‘I know you will take interest in the report I send you of my father’s hospital, which he built when he was only twenty nine and not a rich man. It is a great memorial of his name.’ A true Renaissance man, Wilde was also involved in the 1851 census, which proved beneficial to later Famine research as it documented the severe population loss during the Famine. This awareness of the social and cultural aspects of Ireland grew out of the Young Ireland movement sweeping across Ireland in the 1840s. This movement grew out of the massive demonstration led by the great orator Daniel O’Connell. His fight for and winning of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the subsequent Repeal Movement made him a revered figure in Irish politics. Eric Hobsbawm says of O’Connell in The Age of Revolution that he, ‘was the first–and up to 1848 the only one–of those charismatic popular leaders who mark the awakening of political consciousness in hitherto backward masses.’ This political awareness inspired the formation of the Young Ireland Movement, headed by the editor of the Nation Thomas Davis. This movement proved a cultural awakening for Ireland with many, including Wilde’s mother Jane, proudly joining it. William Wilde, while less involved than his passionate wife, was admired by members in the movement for his accomplishments in Ireland. Wilde’s medical and census work in Ireland led to a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1864, a further reiteration of his success.
Oscar’s relationship with his father has often been viewed as one of ambivalence and shame. His father’s court case with Mary Travers, a former patient, over a rape charge tarnished his image and left the family heavily in debt. The absence of a father figure in Wilde’s plays has led many to assume Wilde tried to distance himself from his father’s image. This portrait of their relationship would prove false, as Wilde’s father provided his son with a realization of his Irish self. Wilde often spoke candidly of his love for Charles Darwin and the beauties of science which were inspired by his father’s work. Spending summers at his country home in Moytura connected him to the beauties of the west of Ireland. Upon hearing from Robert Ross of the loss of Moytura in 1899, Wilde lamented, ‘your news about Moytura are crushing. That octopus the Law!’
Upon deeper inspection one of his earliest prose pieces The Rise of Historical Criticism, written for the Chancellor’s English essay prize in 1879 after Wilde had graduated Oxford, reveals the influence of his father’s work on myth and archeology. Wilde congratulates Thucydides on being the ‘first great rationalistic historian,’ but takes issue with the ‘total absence in his pages of all the mystical paraphernalia of the supernatural theory of life.’ Wilde praises Herodotus who was able to mix myth with cultural and scientific fact, thus creating in Wilde’s mind an ‘immortal work.’ In Herodotus, Wilde is able to see aspects of his father’s work. The role of the historian, like a folklorist and archeologist required the laborious process of searching for information, testing the findings, and compiling the work in a vivid narrative. Like Herodotus, William Wilde had aspects of both scientific reasoning and the ‘mystical’ mindset that Wilde had found so charming.
Combined with myth was a keen understanding of archeology and excavation. Wilde, along with his brother Willie, would accompany their father on trips exploring the ancient sites in Ireland. William Wilde’s book Lough Corrib: Its Shore and Island was written after he had excavated the land with his two boys. Once Oscar was at Oxford he applied for an archeological studentship, writing in his application that he, ‘had been accustomed, through my Father, to visiting and reporting on ancient sites, taking rubbings and measurements and all the technique of open air archaeologica- it is of course a subject of interest to me.’ Unfortunately for Wilde he did not receive the studentship, but his love for archeology is found in his work. In Rise of Historical Criticism he combined archeological discovery with architectural beauty writing, ‘nothing can be more scientific than the archeological canons laid down, whose truth is strikingly illustrated to anyone who has compared the waste fields of the Eurotas plain with the lordly monuments of the Athenian acropolis.’ Myth and archeology once again are entwined in Truth of Masks. Writing of the Renaissance and its relationship to Greek culture he states: ‘legend though it may be, yet the story is nonetheless valuable at showing us the attitude of the Renaissance towards the antique world. Archeology to them was not a mere science for the antiquarian, it was the means by which they could touch the dry dust of antiquity into the very breath and beauty of life, and fill with the new wine of romanticism forms that else had been old and outworn.’ In a paradoxical and fascinating way Wilde is juxtaposing the Irish archeological discoveries of his father with the Renaissance discovery of the Greeks. The Greek culture and way of life would forever be entwined in Wilde’s mind with Ireland. It was early in life where he learned from his father about the value of archeology in creating cultural identity. Wilde would himself add to the folkloric tradition of Irish prose by publishing two books of Fairy stories that drew upon and added to the tradition of his parents William and Lady Jane Wilde.
Before Wilde was able to conquer England in the 1890s, he first had to master his education. A common portrait that Wilde tried to convey of himself was of a lazy and indifferent dandy who praised the merits of the Aesthetic Movement. Instead of laziness, Wilde’s educational career was uniquely brilliant and flecked with accomplishment. Wilde’s parents had selected for him to attend Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, a boarding school that accepted Catholics and which marked Wilde’s first contact with the Irish school system. According to Barbara Belford in Oscar Wilde a Certain Genius, Portora was a ‘nurturing rather than a threatening institution.’ Where Wilde, ‘discovered classics, greedily read poetry, sharpened his wit, and for the first time, socialized with boys his own age.’ Belford is quick to recognize the benefits of Wilde’s education, but fails to see the overwhelmingly English side to his learning. Owen Dudley Edwards in ‘Impressions of an Irish Sphinx’ examined the curriculum being fed to the Irish students at Portora, and found that, ‘Wilde’s Irish identity, riveted on him by his parents from the first, was absolutely denied at his school; and he was therefore conditioned to a life of irrelevance to his own cultural being.’ In examining the test questions posed to these students, Edwards found that not one of them dealt with any aspect of Irish history. Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa writing in his memoirs condemned the English school system writing that England ‘is eliminating from those Irish national schoolbooks every piece of reading that would tend to nurse the Irish youth into a love of country, or a love of freedom.’
It was this exact same English education that Wilde would get sustenance from and use against his oppressors. He echoed this sentiment in a speech he gave in San Francisco in 1882, saying, ‘the Saxon took our lands and left them desolate. We took their language and added new beauty to it’. Wilde’s English education gave him the tools necessary in creating his English mask. Mastering the colonizer’s language proved influential to later Irish writers. James Joyce in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man has his character excel in school, but is troubled over the politics of language. The character Stephan Dedalus says of his Anglo instructor: ‘his language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language.’ Whereas Joyce saw English as a barrier to artistic creation, Wilde saw it as a blank canvas in which he could add new things to. Language became for Wilde a never-ending game of riddles and clever word play which perplexed his audience while at the same time making them laugh at their own ignorance. For Wilde, his artistic mastery of language invigorated the London world. In a letter to Shaw he stated that, ‘England is the land of intellectual fogs but you have done much to clear the air,’ suggesting that it was up to the Celtic races in London to usher in change.
Wilde found strength not only in the Celt, but in the Greeks as well. For Wilde his affinity for Greece was linked to Ireland. While a student in Trinity College Dublin, Wilde excelled at the Classics, and Greek in particular, winning the Gold Medal for Greek, among many other honors. These amazing achievements opened the doors to Oxford, an accomplishment Wilde would speak proudly of. While at Oxford he studied under Walter Pater and John Ruskin, two formative influences on the young Wilde, and the two people who were to take the most credit in establishing Wilde’s love for Aestheticism and the Hellenic mindset. While these men were no doubt formative influences, it was his Trinity College professor John Mahaffy, who introduced Wilde to the Greeks and crafted his witty and Hellenic outlook. While at Oxford Wilde accompanied Mahaffey on a trip to Greece, thus inspiring in him a love of the land matched only by his love of Ireland. He would miss the beginning of term at Oxford, writing to the dons, ‘I hope you will not mind if I miss ten days at the beginning; seeing Greece is really a great education for anyone and will I think benefit me greatly, and Mr. Mahaffy is such a clever man that it is quite as good as going to lectures to be in his society.’ Unfortunately for Wilde, Oxford did not take kindly to his missing of the beginning of term, but he made up for his lateness by winning First Honors in Greats and later the Newdigate Prize. As Wilde’s letter demonstrates, the influence of the Irish Mahaffey on Wilde, instilled in him love for both Greece and Ireland.
Greek for Wilde was the ultimate Hellenic civilization. He found sustenance in their freedom of dress, art, and ideals of love. Historically they have always been considered the first civilization, and where they are viewed as Hellenic, the Roman civilization can be thought of as Hebraic in its general makeup. This idea would be explored by Wilde in Rise of Historical Criticism when he says, ‘in the history of Roman thought we nowhere find any of these characteristics of the Greek Illumination which I have pointed out are the necessary concomitants of the rise of historical criticism.’ In ancient Rome he finds a civilization resembling that of modern England, and positions himself as the fountain of a Celtic Greek ideology. Politically as well, modern Greece provided an example for the problems confronting Ireland. The Greek’s fight for independence in the 1820s, in which Lord Byron fought, proved influential not only to the Young Ireland Movement and 1848 Revolutions, but for the fight for Home Rule. As Hobsbawm makes clear, ‘Greece became the myth and inspiration of nationalists and liberals everywhere.’ The Greek fight for independence was layered into Wilde’s conception of Greek thought and ironically a symbol of Irish nationalism. This becomes clear when Wilde’s first major piece of prose The Rise and Fall of Historical Criticism is examined.
The Rise of Historical Criticism deals with the travesties confronting Ireland not just politically, but historically as well. In a passage on Polybius, Wilde draws a picture of the ills that confronted Greece that mimic the Irish Famine: ‘For it was a disaster quite without parallel in the history of the land, and entirely unforeseen by any of its political-economy writers who, on the contrary were always anticipating that danger would arise from an excess of population over running its means of subsistence, and becoming unmanageable through its size.’ Wilde praises Polybius for his rationale in looking towards science and reason in explaining a natural disaster and not the many other ancient historians who took the devastation as the will of God. The passage above could have been taken from a book on the Irish Famine, since its insight and parallels are so clear. Wilde’s allusions to Ireland are imbedded in his works, but this shows for the first time Wilde clearly associating the Greek with the Irish, having their history’s and cultures intersect. Wilde would master the Greek as he mastered the English language, a linguistic talent he inherited from his mother, who like her son spoke numerous languages including French, but it was through English literature in which his powers of subversion were born. Declan Kiberd states that, ‘English literature had a liberating effect on Wilde: it equipped him with a mask behind which he was able to compose the lineaments of his Irish face.’ Wilde’s voracious reading habits acquainted him not only with the history of England, but the writers who inhabited this mystical land.
Included in Wilde’s reading list were the writers and poets: Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, and John Keats. In reading these esteemed men of Victorian and Romantic literature, Wilde was able to not only appreciate their language, but rework their ideas. In subtle ways these contemporary authors served as self-help sketches on how best to mimic an Englishman. Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a bestselling Victorian novel, was both a Bildungsroman and a scathing critique of the English. Carlyle’s words and works would continue to fascinate Wilde long into his life. The works of Carlyle would feature on a list of books Wilde requested while in prison. Wilde learned from Carlyle the art of inversion and the importance of satire, but he also may have take Carlyle’s ideas on the Irish and the dandy and put them into practice. Carlyle warns: these two principles of Dandiacal Self-worship or Demon-worship, and Poor-Slavish or Drudgical Earth-worship, or whatever that same Drudgism may be, do as yet indeed manifest themselves under distant and nowise considerable shapes: nevertheless, in their roots and subterranean ramifications, they extend through the entire structure of Society, and work unweariedly in the secret depths of English national Existence; striving to separate and isolate it into two contradictory, uncommunicating masses. For Wilde, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus ignited the idea of a subversive Irishmen, rebelling against the stage Paddy of English theatre and becoming a satiric dandy prophet of the Aesthetic Movement.
During the 1870s, while Wilde was at Trinity College and later Oxford, the Aesthetic movement was in full swing. One of the early leaders of the movement was Matthew Arnold. He would introduce Wilde to the Hellenic and Hebraic modes of life that were plaguing England. Arnold’s influential volume Culture and Anarchy argued that criticism was an art in itself, and that the critic’s role was paramount. Wilde would echo this feeling in Critic as Artist inverting Arnold’s words to make them his own. Arnold’s most profound influence on Wilde was his work on Celtic literature. Arnold’s writings on the subject were voluminous, but for all the respect he showed to Celtic literature he still couches them in racial and stereotypical fashion. He labels the Celt, ‘passionate, turbulent’ and possessing an ‘indomitable reaction against the despotism of fact’ not to mention their ‘passion of revolt so warm breathing, puissant, and sincere.’ To the young Wilde, these stereotypical descriptions of the Celt both inspired him and gave him pause. In his quest to conquer England he would assume the role of an Englishman, presenting himself the very same way an actor would. When reviewing Mr. Froude’s Blue Book on Ireland for the Paul Mall Gazette in 1889 he cleverly singles out Froude’s remark that ‘the Irish are the best actors in the world.’ The reason Wilde was such a clever playwright was because at heart he was an accomplished actor. Declan Kiberd points out that Wilde’s only weapon ‘against Anglo-Saxon prejudice was to become more English than the English themselves.’ In order to achieve success in England he had to play a role, and his first role was the English poet.
Poetry for Oscar Wilde was his first passion, as he considered the poet of monumental importance. Ever the paradox, poetry for Wilde proved both liberating and concealing. Concealment was necessary in creating his English image. One of the ways he achieved this was through flattery and mimicry. One of his English heroes was John Keats. In 1818, upon visiting Ireland, Keats would remark of the Irish that they ‘are sensible of the Character they hold in England and act accordingly to Englishman.’ Who better to play an Englishman, but a very cunning Irishman? He would visit Keats’s resting place during his time at Oxford and compose ‘The Grave of Keats’ in which he writes: ‘O poet-painter of our English Land!’ Connecting himself to England was Wilde’s clever way of making himself more English. The irony is that ‘The Grave of Keats,’ like most of Wilde’s early poetry, was published in Ireland. Upon sending it to the editor of the Irish Monthly, Wilde was asked to remove the reference to England which he did, but it later appeared in his print of Poems in 1881.
A third of Wilde’s poems released in 1881 were drenched in Romantic symbolism and imagery. Wilde’s brother, who was then writing for The World, proclaimed Poems as ‘an astonishing success,’ but they proved difficult to capitalize on. Firstly, Wilde had to pay out of his own pocket to have them printed, and secondly, the reviewers noticed that Wilde was merely a poseur of English poetry. The Saturday Review mocked that, ‘Mr. Wilde has read Messrs. Tennyson, Swinburne, Arnold, and Rossetti with great pleasure, and he has paid them the compliment of copying their mannerisms very naively; indeed it may be said that his book is little more than a cento of reminiscences from these poets’ Unfortunately the mask Wilde wore was fraying and his English audience was not impressed. T.W. Higginson personally attacked Wilde, calling his poetry ‘unmanly,’ ironically in The Woman’s Journal. In the journal, he praises Wilde’s mother Speranza, but finds fault with Wilde, who instead of seeking solutions for the Irish problem had instead decided ‘to cross the Atlantic and pose in ladies’ boudoirs or write prurient poems which their hostesses must discreetly ignore.’ Higginson’s comment is distressing, but one which has carried weight regarding Wilde’s work. Higginson characterizes Wilde as indifferent to or unconcerned with the problems confronting Ireland. This assessment of Wilde’s poetry was grossly misinformed as Wilde both critiqued England while finding strength in liberty.
Wilde’s distaste for English manners and foggy sense of propriety can be charmingly found in his witty stage comedies, but the earliest references to satiric jabs at the English are found in his poems. Wilde, ever the master of irony, positions in his poem ‘To Milton,’ a passionate ode to one of England’s greatest poets, coupled with a somber awareness that England’s greatness is no more. Wilde writes,
We are but fit to delve the common clay,
Seeing this little isle on which we stand,
This England, this sea-lion of the sea,
By ignorant demagogues is held in fee.
Matthew Arnold’s poetic influence is recognizable, but so is Wilde’s critique of English poetry, and to an extent, its politics as well. In ‘Ave Imperatrix’ we see Wilde’s critique of British imperialism. Ireland’s role as colonial entity in the British Empire allowed for a psychological understanding of the debilitating presence of a colonial force. Living in England only accentuated this colonial divide as Noreen Doody finds, ‘the position of Irish writers in London was different than their Irish counterparts: imperialism accorded an inferior status to its colonized subjects’ and ‘remained the unquestioned underlined presumption of British social order.’ Throughout ‘Ave Imperatrix’ Wilde writes of the British Empire’s role in the Afghan Wars, and the pomposity and futility of their mission there. Wilde’s hatred of unnecessary violence and death is noticeable in the following passage:
And thou whose wounds are never healed,
Whose weary race is never won,
O Cromwell’s England! Must thou yield
For every inch of ground a son?
Cromwell’s name in connection to England further releases the aggression many Irish had to Cromwell who decimated large areas of Ireland in the 1600s, but more importantly Wilde is descrying the ceaseless killing on both sides for unnecessary purposes. He asks: ‘What profit now that we have bound/ The whole round world with nets of gold/ If hidden in our heart is found/ The care that groweth never old. The care that never grows old is colonial ambition. Even with most of the world under its dominance, the British will still continue to find ways to start unnecessary wars to further their imperial objectives. Wilde at heart would remain a pacifist, queasy at the sight of blood, but like his mother, impassioned with dreams of independence. The final lines of the poem witness a republic rising from the sand of war:
Yet when this fiery web is spun,
Her watchmen shall descry from far
The young republic like a sun
Rise from these crimson seas of war.
Wilde was anticipating the eventual independence of the British colonies once the warring British settled down. The poem is an ironic twist that only Wilde could create. It embodies Wilde’s genius in poetic verse: at once conciliatory to the English, he picks them apart, denouncing their conquests of war, and finally ending with a portrait of colonial independence, an issue that his fellow Irishman were trying to achieve.
One of the reasons Wilde was able to connect with the Home Rule Movement and most particularly to Parnell and Davitt, was because they were self exiled immigrants from Ireland like himself. Emigration from Ireland in the nineteenth century spread the Irish people all over the world to places as far as Australia, to the United States and Canada, and all over the British Isles. Wilde wrote: ‘what captivity was to the Jews, exile has been to the Irish.’ The destructive force of the Famine coupled with the massive evictions of tenants from the land set off an exodus of the Irish from Ireland that continued into the twentieth century. Michael Davitt, leader of the Land League, was himself evicted from the land. He would insist that his political outlook was shaped by these events and that ‘the men who made the Land League were the sons of those who went through the horrors of the Great Famine.’ Such massive migrations of Irish people made them reviled in their new land, leading to harsh stereotypes of filth and uncleanliness. Ridicule proved hard to combat, but it was the immigration experience that ensured that the culture survived and also psychologically awoke knowledge of their cultural self. Wilde would himself echo this statement writing that back in Ireland he ‘had but learnt the pathetic weakness of nationality, but in a strange land realized what indomitable forces nationality possesses.’ This reinvigorated nationalism appeared with his relocation in England.
Memories of Ireland proved useful, but transition to England proved difficult for Wilde to overcome. He would alleviate the transition by finding strength in the Irish Nationalist Movement, and particularly Parnell and Davitt. The backdrop of agrarian unrest and political turmoil wreaking havoc in Ireland in the 1870s and 80s must not have been lost on the young Wilde. This point is perhaps best articulated by his publication of ‘Sonnet to Liberty’ in 1881. The poem is his most characteristic nod to his mother’s poetic style and in itself a veiled attachment to the Home Rule movement. Wilde writes, ‘thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,/ Mirror my wildest passions like the sea/ And give my rage a brother-! Liberty!’ Like Speranza’s poetry, it called for a revolution of sorts and is imbued with passionate imagery. It was through writing poetry that Wilde could connect himself to the politics unfolding within his country like,
the bards of past centuries who, lurked with the outlaws in the forest, glen, and mountain cave and lit with the fire of enthusiasm the hearts of the weak or hurled at the oppressor their indomitable scorn, the poets were the lifeblood and heart-blood of the Irish life.
Ironically it was during the late 1870s, just as Home Rule and the Land League were underway that Wilde considered a role in politics. Upon coming to London he was in search of a profession and desperately needed money. He wrote to Oscar Browning in 1880 inquiring about a school inspector position, like that of Matthew Arnold: ‘will you do me a good service, and write a testimonial of what you think my ability for a position in the Education Office or Inspectorship would be,’ he begins, adding, ‘Rents being as extinct in Ireland as the dodo or moly, I want to get a position with an assured income.’ Wilde did not secure the school inspectorship, but as Ellmann notes, he considered a career in Parliament, a profession Lady Wilde sincerely hoped for. Wilde’s political career did not materialize, but he did correspond with some of the England’s greatest statesmen including William Gladstone. Wilde’s relationship with Gladstone would continue throughout his career, and his regard for him, especially in areas of Irish Home Rule, would continue to be a source of respect. In 1888, Wilde sent Gladstone a collection of his first book of fairy tales The Happy Prince, noting he would ‘like to have the pleasure of presenting it, such as it is, to one whom I, and all who have Celtic blood in their veins, must ever honor and revere.’ Wilde’s appreciation for politicians especially those supporting the Irish cause was mimicked in his writings. Perhaps his greatest admiration was reserved for Charles Parnell.
Parnell was a Protestant from County Wicklow whose rise would mirror Wilde’s own. His mother was a fiery American whose passionate hatred of the British added to Parnell’s later political thought. His entry in British politics, like Wilde’s own rise, was deemed by some, a failure. He lost his first election, but quickly aligned himself to both Home Rule and land reform. Just as Wilde had connections to Young Ireland, so did Parnell. He contributed money towards John Mitchel’s election in 1875, and in that same year was endorsed by the Home Rule League for the Meath seat left vacant by John Martin, a former Young Irelander.’ Whereas Wilde was artistic and elusive, Parnell was scientific and decisive. He portrayed an image of strength and resolution, and was keen enough to recognize the importance of self-promotion in the Victorian press. In 1881, Parnell along with William O’Brien set up the newspaper United Ireland which was an organ for Parnellite policies. As Owen McGee notes, ‘United Ireland was from its inception an uncritical champion of Parnell and constantly propagated a personality cult about him.’ This cult helped solidify in Irish and British minds that Parnell was the leader of the Home Rule Movement, and helped facilitate support for both Home Rule and the Land League throughout Ireland and America. Wilde’s rise mimics this same closeness between man and press. Wilde’s famous epigram that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about’ reveals the importance a public persona had come to hold in nineteenth century culture. Through his brother’s press organ he helped put his name in people’s mouths, a trait he would remember when taking over as editor of the Woman’s World. Oscar’s clever words and public demeanor made him the face of the Aesthetic Movement, leading to a tour of America in 1882. What Parnell had become for Irish politics, Wilde had become for art.
If Wilde could not politically take action for Ireland, he chose to do it through his art. As has already been mentioned, his early prose and poems display a nationalist sentiment, but it was in his first play Vera or the Nihilists that he voices support for the Land League in Ireland, with images of the Famine imbedded throughout. The play follows a group of nihilists headed by Vera, a character modeled largely on his mother Speranza. The political and social allusions to Ireland are clearly visible. In the prologue, the innkeeper laments on the horrible conditions the people in Russia were faced with that echo the Irish Famine. Wilde writes, ‘and then the blight came, and the black plague with it and the priests couldn’t bury the people fast enough, and they lay dead on the roads- men and women both.’ The famine in Wilde’s Russia closely resembles the famine in Ireland. Horace Wyndham in his Speranza: A Biography of Lady Wilde subtly connects the Coercion Bill enacted in the Famine with Wilde’s work writing that the bill ‘would have been unduly severe if directed by the Czar against a band of Nihilists’ In Vera’s speech we see a further echo of Speranza’s political prose when she proclaims:
Ay, Martial Law. The last right to which the people clung has been taken from them. Without trial, without appeal, without accuser even, our brothers will be taken from their houses, shot in the streets like dogs, sent away to die in the snow, to starve in the dungeon, to rot in the mine. 
Speranza’s rhetoric is alive in the character Vera, but Wilde was also sensitive to the social situation unfolding in Ireland at the time Vera was being written. Rents and the ownership of land had plagued Ireland for years, including his own family. There were revolts in the early 1880s organized by the National Land League headed by Michael Davitt, and supported by Parnell, that attacked absentee landlords and the inequality of land. Wilde instills in Vera the language of his mother and shows a social awareness of the events that were unfolding in Ireland in the 1840s and which were still occurring during the late 1870s.
Vera is clearly the main heroine who risks her life for her country. Wilde though, positions himself in the character of Paul. Initially he is a supporter of the evil Czar in Russia, but eventually switches sides and becomes a converted nihilist. Paul, like Wilde, is both dandy and subverter. Just as Wilde wore an English mask while he maintained a hidden Irish identity, Paul was a Russian Count who hid his nihilist intentions. Unfortunately for Wilde, having his play set in Russia proved to be disastrous since Alexander II of Russia was assassinated shortly before the release of Vera in 1881, fulfilling Wilde’s quip that ‘literature always anticipates life.’
Wilde’s play Vera would eventually prove a flop, even with heavy promotion, during his tour in America, but it marked his first time incorporating the theme of role reversal into his plays. In Vera we see the characters roles reversed numerous times. The men appear weak while the women are intellectually superior. Allegiances are sworn, broken off, or switched, and the ending of the play while melodramatic, finds the nihilists on top. This clever role reversal would be implemented by Wilde in some of his most celebrated plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest. Not only is this suggestive of his feminist and homosexual ideals, but it is embedded in the relationship between England and Ireland. Achieving this reversal of roles would position Ireland to be the dominant power with England holding a colonial status. This methodology comes out of Michael Davitt’s writings on the relationship of the two countries. Davitt asks in Jottings in Solitary how would the English react ‘if they were governed as Ireland was: if such a system of government fell by any chance to the lot of the English people there is not an Englishman breathing who feels for the honor of his country and hates the mercenary injustice, who would not strive to kick such a den of arrogant and unscrupulous underlings into the Thames.’ Wilde would put Davitt’s hypothetical question into action by forever questioning the relationship between power and the oppressed, using subversion and masks to achieve freedom and equipping his characters with the same rebellious qualities. Wilde, in order to promote Vera and the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Patience, went on a tour of America in 1882. Wilde’s tour of America proved bountiful in numerous ways, not only financially but it was the first time Wilde unequivocally flaunted support both for Home Rule, the Land League, and Irish art. His lectures on Aesthetic decoration and art in pieces like ‘House Beautiful’ expanded his hold on Aestheticism, but they also profess a faith in art that would dispel the sectarian divide of Catholic and Protestant that was plaguing Ireland. At the end of ‘House Beautiful’ he says, ‘There are grand truths in and beauty in the Catholic pictorial art, and in the Protestant religious music, which no sectarian prejudice and no narrow minded bigotry can keep the world from acknowledging and admiring. Relying on the Aesthetic ideal of ‘art for art’s sake,’ Wilde saw in art the key to breaking down ignorance and violence, by allowing the beauties of art to rise above partisan politics. Many were unable to recognize any truth in this philosophy. Ironically one such detractor was Fanny Parnell, sister of Charles. In her poem ‘Maudle Caudle’ first published in the Kildare Observer in 1882, she jests,
So stately his form, and so frigid his face,
No salon before such a grandee did grace;
While the damsels did fret, and the chaperons Hell’s fume
The Aesthete stood dangling a long peacock’s plume.
Wilde’s connection with Parnell here is interesting, and reflects his growing prominence in both America and Britain.
Besides a budding Aesthete, Wilde was also greeted as a fellow Irishman. The Nation newspaper would say of him
that since his arrival in America he has not followed the example of some meaner natures under like condition, and hidden or denied his nationality. He has whenever challenged, proclaimed his Irish birth and breeding, and –what is better still-he has plainly declared himself a supporter of the national cause of self government.
Wilde’s Irishness continued to be commented on by numerous newspapers and in interviews that he gave. Headlines proclaimed him ‘Speranza’s Son’ and his speeches in San Francisco and remarks on St. Patrick’s Day all added to a heightened sense of his Irish nationality. Wilde even created some controversy while meeting Jefferson Davis in Georgia, commenting that ‘we in Ireland are fighting for the principle of autonomy against empire, for independence against centralization, for the principle for which the South fought.’ To a twenty-first century audience Wilde’s comments are perplexing, but many Irish had fought on the Confederate side and supported the Confederacy, including Young Irelander John Mitchel. Wilde’s comments show support for Ireland and his charming skills at conversation.
Once Wilde arrived back in London his career was in full swing. He fled to Paris in 1883, began looking for venues for his second play Duchess of Padua (which proved another failure), and in 1884 began touring Britain and Ireland. Wilde had met his future wife Constance while in Dublin in 1881, and they were married in 1884. It was also in 1884 where Wilde gave a number of lectures in Belfast. The Belfast Newsletter notes, ‘it would be impossible to say that the impression created by Mr. Oscar Wilde’s first appearance as a lecturer in Belfast at the theatre yesterday afternoon was otherwise than the most favorable character.’ From the mid 1880s onward Wilde’s career focused on journalism with countless reviews for magazines like The Pall Mall Gazette and his own editorship of The Woman’s World. While Bernard Shaw would distance himself from Wilde in later years, he gave ample praise of him to David O’Donoghue who had published a series of articles titled ‘Ireland in London.’ Shaw says of his work that, ‘all the long reviews of distinctly Irish quality during the 1885-8 period may, I think, be set down either to me or Oscar Wilde, whose reviews were sometimes credited to me. His work was exceptionally finished in style and very amusing.’ Wilde’s reviews were amusing and referenced Ireland frequently. In the Pall Mall Gazette he wrote on ‘Early Christian Art in Ireland,’ and also on the Irish question and his support for of the Irish nationalists. In 1888 he struck up a friendship with William Butler Yeats, an admirer of Lady Wilde. Wilde would prove to be a profound creative influence on Yeats, especially his play Salome, and Yeats would forever uphold the Irish side of Wilde. In a review for Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime Yeats remarks, ‘for much of him is Irish of the Irish. I see in his life and works and extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity.’ By the late 1880s two attempts at a Home Rule Bill had failed, the Land League was no more, and Parnell was on trial. Still, Wilde professed commitment to the cause writing, ‘there are some who will welcome with delight the idea of solving the Irish question by doing away with the Irish people. There are others who will remember that Ireland has extended her boundaries, and that we have now to reckon with her not merely in the Old World but the New.’
The ending of the 1880s saw Wilde on the cusp of massive success, but the troubling state of Irish affairs still remained a part of him. Politically Wilde became heavily influenced by socialism. Shaw in later years would try to take credit for Wilde’s dabbling in socialism, but this persuasion originated with Michael Davitt. One of Davitt’s fundamental differences with Parnell was his belief in land nationalization, inspired by his readings of Henry George. Originally the goal of peasant proprietorship was the goal of the Land League, but Davitt wanted to go further, arguing, ‘it will not destroy, it will only extend the absolute ownership of land: an ownership which will always be in the market for purchase and reconsolidation into large estates.’ These ideas did not sit well with Parnell, but proved beneficial to Wilde. He echoes Davitt’s ideas in ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ saying:
I can quite understand a man accepting laws that protect private property, and admit of its accumulation, as long as he himself is able under those conditions to realize some form of beautiful and intellectual life. But it is almost incredible to me how a man whose life is marred and made hideous by such laws can possibly acquiesce in their continuance.
Wilde’s whole undertaking of ‘Soul of Man Under Socialism’ was inspired by both Davitt and Parnell. He took aspects of both men and created a utopian paradise where socialism and individualism reigned supreme. He speaks to Parnell directly, calling him ‘a leader of political thought as he is creator of political force,’ while harshly rebuking the conservative press that tore him apart. Although written in 1889, ‘Soul of Man’ was published in 1891, the year Parnell died following a public divorce scandal with Katherine O’Shea that toppled his hold on Irish politics, but ensured his legacy in Irish memory. Just as Parnell fell in 1891, Wilde’s fall would swiftly follow. Ironically Wilde’s lawsuit against the Marquess of Queensbury over libel, and the two trials that followed for indecency in 1895, coincided with the return of the Conservative Party to power which symbolically put an end to a Home Rule bill being passed in Parliament. Wilde’s end, like that of Parnell came swiftly, but his impact on English and Irish relations was monumental. Growing up with two Irish nationalist parents provided him with a sense of the importance of his Irishness, his English schooling gave him one of his first masks in which to hide behind, and his successes in Trinity and Oxford taught him that he could conquer the colonizer’s language. His relocation to England reawakened his Irish self as is mirrored in his poems and plays. In his heart he remained quintessentially Irish, masquerading amongst his conquerors as one of their own. He did for art, what Parnell and Davitt were able to do for Irish politics, and in his early life and works we are able to uncover the mask that revealed a complex and fascinating Irishman. In them we are able to fully glimpse the Irish genius at his most nationalistic.
- Matthew Skwiat writes;
I am a third year PhD student studying British and Irish History at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. My main areas of interest are in 19th Century British and Irish history and literature and Modernism in the early 20th Century. I received an MA in History in 2013 and am currently working on my dissertation on the trials of Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement.
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Engels, Frederick. Condition of the Working Class in England trans. And ed. W.O Henderson. New York: Macmillan Company, 1958.
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Yeats, W.B. The Collected Letters of W.B Yeats Volume 1865-1895. Ed. John Kelly and Eric Domville. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.
— Early Articles and Reviews: Uncollected Articles and Reviews Written between 1886 and 1900. Ed. John Frayne and Madeleine Marchaterre. New York: Scribner, 2004.
 Oscar Wilde, The Critic As Artist in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Harper Collins, 2003), 1142.
 Wilde, Decay of Lying, Works, 1082.
 Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Vintage Books, 1987) 179.
 Maria Tymoczko, The Irish Ulysses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 260.
 H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: A Biography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975), 37.
 Ellmann, 124.
 Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997), 50.
 Noreen Doody, ‘Oscar Wilde: Nation and Empire’ in Palgrave Advances in Oscar Wilde Studies, ed. Frederick Roden (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 249.
 ‘Soul of Man Under Socialism’ in Works, 1189.
 Wilde, De Profundis, Works, 1010.
 See Davis Coakley, Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish. Dublin: Town House, 1995.
 Rupert Hart Davis, ed. The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962), 26.
 Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848 (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), 138.
 Letters, 791.
 Oscar Wilde, Essays and Lectures (London: Methuen & Co., 1913), 25.
 Ibid, 25.
 Barbara Belford, Oscar Wilde A Certain Genius (New York: Random House, 2000), 25.
 Wilde, Essays, 32.
 Wilde, Truth of Masks, Works, 1162.
 Belford, 26.
 Owen Dudley Edwards, ‘Impressions of an Irish Sphinx’ in Wilde the Irishman, ed. Jerusha McCormack (London, Yale University Press, 1998), 66.
Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Rossa’s Recollections 1838-1898 (Guilford: The Lions Press, 2004), 29.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), 205.
 Hobsbawm, 140.
 Essays, 73.
 Declan Kiberd, ‘Oscar Wilde: The Artist as Irishman’ in Wilde the Irishman, ed. Jerusha McCormack (London, Yale University Press, 1998), 22.
 Letters, 405.
 Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, in a Carlyle Reader, ed. G.B. Tennyson (Acton: Copley Publishing, 1999), 263-4.
 Matthew Arnold, The Study of Celtic Literature (London, Smith, Elder, and Co., 1905), 130.
Pall Mall Gazette, 13 April 1889.
 Inventing, 36.
 John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 119.
 Works, 778.
 Letters, 40.
 Harris, 43.
Karl Beckson, ed. Oscar Wilde the Critical Heritage ( New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 1970), 37.
 Ibid, 52.
 Works, 774.
 Doody, 259.
 Ibid, 853.
 Ibid, 853.
 Ibid, 854.
Pall Mall Gazette, 13 April 1889.
Carla King, Michael Davitt (Dublin: University of College Press Dublin, 2009), 4.
 Inventing, 37.
 Works, 859.
 O’Neill, 31.
 Letters, 63.
 Ibid, 218.
Alan O’Day, Charles Stewart Parnell (Dublin: University of College Dublin Press, 2012), 15.
 McGee, 91.
 Vera, Works, 682.
 Horace Wyndham, Speranza A Biography of Lady Wilde (New York: Philosophical Library Inc., 1951), 21.
 Works, Vera, 689.
 Decay of Lying, Works, 1085.
Michael Davitt, Jottings in Solitary ed., Carla King (Dublin University of Dublin Press, 2003), 66.
 Kildare Observer, 11 March 1882.
 Nation, 15 April 1882.
 Doris Lanier, ‘Oscar Wilde Tours Georgia: 1882.’ The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Winter, 1981), 333.
 McCann, Wesley, ‘Bunthorne in Belfast: Oscar Wilde’s Visit of 1884.’ The Linen Hall Review, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1988), 9.
 George Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters 1874-1897. Ed. Dan H. Laurence (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1965), 210.
 Belford, 157.
 See Noreen Doody, ‘An Echo of some one else’s music’: The Influence of Oscar Wilde on W.B Yeats’ in The Importance of Reinventing Oscar, ed. Uwe Boker, Richard Corballis and Julie Hibbard (New York: Rodopi, 2002), 175.
 Beckson, 111.
 Paul Mall Gazette, 13 April 1889.
 King, 39.
 Soul of Man, Works, 1176.
 Ibid, 1189.