Oscar Wilde did well at school, but he did still better at college, where the competition was more severe. He entered Trinity on October 19th, 1871, just three days after his seventeenth birthday. Sir Edward Sullivan writes me that when Oscar matriculated at Trinity he was already “a thoroughly good classical scholar of a brilliant type,” and he goes on to give an invaluable snap-shot of him at this time; a likeness, in fact, the chief features of which grew more and more characteristic as the years went on.
“He had rooms in College at the north side of one of the older squares, known as Botany Bay. These rooms were exceedingly grimy and ill-kept. He never entertained there. On the rare occasions when visitors were admitted, an unfinished landscape in oils was always on the easel, in a prominent place in his sitting room. He would invariably refer to it, telling one in his humorously unconvincing way that ‘he had just put in the butterfly.’ Those of us who had seen his work in the drawing class presided over by ‘Bully’ Wakeman at Portora were not likely to be deceived in the matter….
“His college life was mainly one of study; in addition to working for his classical examinations, he devoured with voracity all the best English writers.
“He was an intense admirer of Swinburne and constantly reading his poems; John Addington Symond’s works too, on the Greek authors, were perpetually in his hands. He never entertained any pronounced views on social, religious or political questions while in College; he seemed to be altogether devoted to literary matters.
“He mixed freely at the same time in Dublin society functions of all kinds, and was always a very vivacious and welcome guest at any house he cared to visit. All through his Dublin University days he was one of the purest minded men that could be met with.
“He was not a card player, but would on occasions join in a game of limited loo at some man’s rooms. He was also an extremely moderate drinker. He became a member of the junior debating society, the Philosophical, but hardly ever took any part in their discussions.
“He read for the Berkeley medal (which he afterwards gained) with an excellent, but at the same time broken-down, classical scholar, John Townsend Mills, and, besides instruction, he contrived to get a good deal of amusement out of his readings with his quaint teacher. He told me for instance that on one occasion he expressed his sympathy for Mills on seeing him come into his rooms wearing a tall hat completely covered in crape. Mills, however, replied, with a smile, that no one was dead—it was only the evil condition of his hat that had made him assume so mournful a disguise. I have often thought that the incident was still fresh in Oscar Wilde’s mind when he introduced John Worthing in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ in mourning for his fictitious brother….
“Shortly before he started on his first trip to Italy, he came into my rooms in a very striking pair of trousers. I made some chaffing remark on them, but he begged me in the most serious style of which he was so excellent a master not to jest about them.
“‘They are my Trasimene trousers, and I mean to wear them there.'”
Already his humour was beginning to strike all his acquaintances, and what Sir Edward Sullivan here calls his “puremindedness,” or what I should rather call his peculiar refinement of nature. No one ever heard Oscar Wilde tell a suggestive story; indeed he always shrank from any gross or crude expression; even his mouth was vowed always to pure beauty.
The Trinity Don whom I have already quoted about Oscar’s school-days sends me a rather severe critical judgment of him as a student. There is some truth in it, however, for in part at least it was borne out and corroborated by Oscar’s later achievement. It must be borne in mind that the Don was one of his competitors at Trinity, and a successful one; Oscar’s mind could not limit itself to college tasks and prescribed books.
“When Oscar came to college he did excellently during the first year; he was top of his class in classics; but he did not do so well in the long examinations for a classical scholarship in his second year. He was placed fifth, which was considered very good, but he was plainly not, the man for the δολιχος (or long struggle), though first-rate for a short examination.”
Oscar himself only completed these spirit-photographs by what he told me of his life at Trinity.
“It was the fascination of Greek letters, and the delight I took in Greek life and thought,” he said to me once, “which made me a scholar. I got my love of the Greek ideal and my intimate knowledge of the language at Trinity from Mahaffy and Tyrrell; they were Trinity to me; Mahaffy was especially valuable to me at that time. Though not so good a scholar as Tyrrell, he had been in Greece, had lived there and saturated himself with Greek thought and Greek feeling. Besides he took deliberately the artistic standpoint towards everything, which was coming more and more to be my standpoint. He was a delightful talker, too, a really great talker in a certain way—an artist in vivid words and eloquent pauses. Tyrrell, too, was very kind to me—intensely sympathetic and crammed with knowledge. If he had known less he would have been a poet. Learning is a sad handicap, Frank, an appalling handicap,” and he laughed irresistibly.
“What were the students like in Dublin?” I asked. “Did you make friends with any of them?”
“They were worse even than the boys at Portora,” he replied; “they thought of nothing but cricket and football, running and jumping; and they varied these intellectual exercises with bouts of fighting and drinking. If they had any souls they diverted them with coarse amours among barmaids and the women of the streets; they were simply awful. Sexual vice is even coarser and more loathsome in Ireland than it is in England:—”‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’
“When I tried to talk they broke into my thought with stupid gibes and jokes. Their highest idea of humour was an obscene story. No, no, Tyrrell and Mahaffy represent to me whatever was good in Trinity.”
In 1874 Oscar Wilde won the gold medal for Greek. The subject of the year was “The Fragments of the Greek Comic Poets, as edited by Meineke.” In this year, too, he won a classical scholarship—a demyship of the annual value of £95, which was tenable for five years, which enabled him to go to Oxford without throwing an undue strain on his father’s means.
He noticed with delight that his success was announced in the Oxford University Gazette of July 11th, 1874. He entered Magdalen College, Oxford, on October 17th, a day after his twentieth birthday.
Just as he had been more successful at Trinity than at school, so he was destined to be far more successful and win a far greater reputation at Oxford than in Dublin.
He had the advantage of going to Oxford a little later than most men, at twenty instead of eighteen, and thus was enabled to win high honours with comparative ease, while leading a life of cultured enjoyment.
He was placed in the first class in “Moderations” in 1876 and had even then managed to make himself talked about in the life of the place. The Trinity Don whom I have already quoted, after admitting that there was not a breath against his character either at school or Trinity, goes on to write that “at Trinity he did not strike us as a very exceptional person,” and yet there must have been some sharp eyes at Trinity, for our Don adds with surprising divination:
“I fancy his rapid development took place after he went to Oxford, where he was able to specialize more; in fact where he could study what he most affected. It is, I feel sure, from his Oxford life more than from his life in Ireland that one would be able to trace the good and bad features by which he afterwards attracted the attention of the world.”
In 1878 Oscar won a First Class in “Greats.” In this same Trinity term, 1878, he further distinguished himself by gaining the Newdigate prize for English verse with his poem “Ravenna,” which he recited at the annual Commemoration in the Sheldonian Theatre on June 26th. His reciting of the poem was the literary event of the year in Oxford.
There had been great curiosity about him; he was said to be the best talker of the day, and one of the ripest scholars. There were those in the University who predicted an astonishing future for him, and indeed all possibilities seemed within his reach. “His verses were listened to,” said The Oxford and Cambridge Undergraduates’Journal, “with rapt attention.” It was just the sort of thing, half poetry, half rhythmic rhetoric, which was sure to reach the hearts and minds of youth. His voice, too, was of beautiful tenor quality, and exquisitely used. When he sat down people crowded to praise him and even men of great distinction in life flattered him with extravagant compliments. Strange to say he used always to declare that his appearance about the same time as Prince Rupert, at a fancy dress ball, given by Mrs. George Morrell, at Headington Hill Hall, afforded him a far more gratifying proof of the exceptional position he had won.
“Everyone came round me, Frank, and made me talk. I hardly danced at all. I went as Prince Rupert, and I talked as he charged but with more success, for I turned all my foes into friends. I had the divinest evening; Oxford meant so much to me….
“I wish I could tell you all Oxford did for me.
“I was the happiest man in the world when I entered Magdalen for the first time. Oxford—the mere word to me is full of an inexpressible, an incommunicable charm. Oxford—the home of lost causes and impossible ideals; Matthew Arnold’s Oxford—with its dreaming spires and grey colleges, set in velvet lawns and hidden away among the trees, and about it the beautiful fields, all starred with cowslips and fritillaries where the quiet river winds its way to London and the sea…. The change, Frank, to me was astounding; Trinity was as barbarian as school, with coarseness superadded. If it had not been for two or three people, I should have been worse off at Trinity than at Portora; but Oxford—Oxford was paradise to me. My very soul seemed to expand within me to peace and joy. Oxford—the enchanted valley, holding in its flowerlet cup all the idealism of the middle ages. Oxford is the capital of romance, Frank; in its own way as memorable as Athens, and to me it was even more entrancing. In Oxford, as in Athens, the realities of sordid life were kept at a distance. No one seemed to know anything about money or care anything for it. Everywhere the aristocratic feeling; one must have money, but must not bother about it. And all the appurtenances of life were perfect: the food, the wine, the cigarettes; the common needs of life became artistic symbols, our clothes even won meaning and significance. It was at Oxford I first dressed in knee breeches and silk stockings. I almost reformed fashion and made modern dress æsthetically beautiful; a second and greater reformation, Frank. What a pity it is that Luther knew nothing of dress, had no sense of the becoming. He had courage but no fineness of perception. I’m afraid his neckties would always have been quite shocking!” and he laughed charmingly.
“What about the inside of the platter, Oscar?”
“Ah, Frank, don’t ask me, I don’t know; there was no grossness, no coarseness; but all delicate delights!”‘Fair passions and bountiful pities and loves without pain,'”
and he laughed mischievously at the misquotation.
“Loves?” I questioned, and he nodded his head smiling; but would not be drawn.
“All romantic and ideal affections. Every successive wave of youths from the public schools brought some chosen spirits, perfectly wonderful persons, the most graceful and fascinating disciples that a poet could desire, and I preached the old-ever-new gospel of individual revolt and individual perfection. I showed them that sin with its curiosities widened the horizons of life. Prejudices and prohibitions are mere walls to imprison the soul. Indulgence may hurt the body, Frank, but nothing except suffering hurts the spirit; it is self-denial and abstinence that maim and deform the soul.”
“Then they knew you as a great talker even at Oxford?” I asked in some surprise.
“Frank,” he cried reprovingly, laughing at the same time delightfully, “I was a great talker at school. I did nothing at Trinity but talk, my reading was done at odd hours. I was the best talker ever seen in Oxford.”
“And did you find any teacher there like Mahaffy?” I asked, “any professor with a touch of the poet?”
He came to seriousness at once.
“There were two or three teachers, Frank,” he replied, “greater than Mahaffy; teachers of the world as well as of Oxford. There was Ruskin for instance, who appealed to me intensely—a wonderful man and a most wonderful writer. A sort of exquisite romantic flower; like a violet filling the whole air with the ineffable perfume of belief. Ruskin has always seemed to me the Plato of England—a Prophet of the Good and True and Beautiful, who saw as Plato saw that the three are one perfect flower. But it was his prose I loved, and not his piety. His sympathy with the poor bored me: the road he wanted us to build was tiresome. I could see nothing in poverty that appealed to me, nothing; I shrank away from it as from a degradation of the spirit; but his prose was lyrical and rose on broad wings into the blue. He was a great poet and teacher, Frank, and therefore of course a most preposterous professor; he bored you to death when he taught, but was an inspiration when he sang.
“Then there was Pater, Pater the classic, Pater the scholar, who had already written the greatest English prose: I think a page or two of the greatest prose in all literature. Pater meant everything to me. He taught me the highest form of art: the austerity of beauty. I came to my full growth with Pater. He was a sort of silent, sympathetic elder brother. Fortunately for me he could not talk at all; but he was an admirable listener, and I talked to him by the hour. I learned the instrument of speech with him, for I could see by his face when I had said anything extraordinary. He did not praise me but quickened me astonishingly, forced me always to do better than my best—an intense vivifying influence, the influence of Greek art at its supremest.”
“He was the Gamaliel then?” I questioned, “at whose feet you sat?”
“Oh, no, Frank,” he chided, “everyone sat at my feet even then. But Pater was a very great man. Dear Pater! I remember once talking to him when we were seated together on a bench under some trees in Oxford. I had been watching the students bathing in the river: the beautiful white figures all grace and ease and virile strength. I had been pointing out how Christianity had flowered into romance, and how the crude Hebraic materialism and all the later formalities of an established creed had fallen away from the tree of life and left us the exquisite ideals of the new paganism….
“The pale Christ had been outlived: his renunciations and his sympathies were mere weaknesses: we were moving to a synthesis of art where the enchanting perfume of romance should be wedded to the severe beauty of classic form. I really talked as if inspired, and when I paused, Pater—the stiff, quiet, silent Pater—suddenly slipped from his seat and knelt down by me and kissed my hand. I cried:
“‘You must not, you really must not. What would people think if they saw you?’
“He got up with a white strained face.
“‘I had to,’ he muttered, glancing about him fearfully, ‘I had to—once….'”
I must warn my readers that this whole incident is ripened and set in a higher key of thought by the fact that Oscar told it more than ten years after it happened.
Life & confessions