'The Extense Genius of Oscar Wilde' - by Vigilant , Westralian Worker, 10 August 1917, page 2
“I believe in a universe of matter and energy, each existing in fixed and definite quantities from the beginning of time (which never did begin). Neither matter nor energy can be created nor destroyed. Matter exists in seventy distinct and non-transmittable forms, the elements, each one of which has existed in fixed and definite quantity from the beginning (which there wasn’t any). Each element is furthermore composed of its characteristic atoms, which are the ultimate particles of matter, inert, immutable, indivisible.”
So ran the comfortable creed of the chemist of quarter of a century ago. But unfortunately for his comfort, Madame Curie discovered a new element, the now famous radium, that upset, or appeared to upset, the major part of the dogma. It appeared to create new energy in torrents, and even to change itself into other elements. Today we know what really happens. We must revise our notion of the atom. Instead of being inert, indivisible, immutable, it is a complex of a thousand factors, a mere monetary phase betwixt change and change, a tornado of energy playing upon the barest minimum of substance. Could we but learn how to pack within its microcosmic boundaries another myriad energy micro-units, to change lead to gold were but child-play. And when the day days on which we learn how to set free the energy bound up in the atoms of a few tons of granite rock, steam and electricity will be discarded as the make-shifts of a barbarous age.
But in one element, radium, this setting free of the energy of atoms takes place of its own accord. The radium atom, we must suppose, is over-charged with energy. The surplus overflows tumultuously, tearing apart the substance in its will to be free.
In this, we wonder, what, happens with such examples of over-strung genius as Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary and almost rival, whose turbulent life was cut short at the threshold of manhood through a chance blow in a drunken brawl? – Shelley, the sweet singer, fierce rebel, and clear-eyed prophet of a century ago. – or Oscar Wilde, the apostle of the school of “Art for Art’s Sake,” comrade of Whistler and Morris, and author of some of the finest moral essays in the English language, but whose name nevertheless, is with rough-minded men a by-word for perverted crime.
A.G. Stevens would speak of these men as gifted and afflicted with “extreme genius.” Their works show marvellous power of imagination. They create new ideas – whole new trains of ideas. Their work is even cloying from its very richness. But there is relatively little of it. Shakespeare wrote thirty plays in twenty years of acting, rehearsing and theatre managing. His genius was of a more ordered type. It was intense not extense. His mind was the medium through which vast literary treasure was bestowed upon mankind; Shelley, Wilde, Marlowe, have given us, perhaps, even richer gems, but in smaller measure. Shakespeare’s mind sustained the strain of his work; but the fierce flames of the other men destroyed untimely the sources from which they sprang.
The English public, incapable as it is of distinguishing between a man’s failings in character and the value of his work, will probably never appreciate Wilde. But if England ever had a lover, that’s lover was Wilde. England, though, loves only her blind lover. She smirks with delight to be told, “The English Thames is holier far than Rome,” but Wilde’s “Ave Imperatrix,” one of the most genuinely patriotic songs ever written, is comparatively unknown:-
And thou whose wounds are never healed,
Wave and wild wind and foreign shore
What profit now that we have bound
|Yet when this fiery
web is pun
Her watchmen shall descry from far
The young Republic like a sun
Rise from these crimson seas of war.
To the Australian mind the fact that Wilde knew what he was talking about – the fact that “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” for example is largely a study of the deterioration of the author’s own character – sympathetic, but not indulgent – gives his work an added value. To the average English critic it appears to be a condemnation, both of the man and the work. (Vide article on Oscar Wilde in Encyclopedia Britannica.) This novel is a study of the life of a man who, by virtue of a magical process, is able to transfer to a picture of himself, the physiological effects of his debauched life. As a “morality novel” it stands almost unique in English literature. Had it been written by a clergyman, who knew nothing of what he described, the volume would be well known as a Sunday School prize. But it was written by Wilde whose offences brought him to Reading gaol, and who accepted prison as a penitence, and with a spirit of determination that, no matter how wrong the penal system might be, he at least would benefit by it. Of this resolve he tells us in “De Profundus,” a most remarkable essay written in gaol. That his struggle was not crowned with success we gather from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (written after his release):-
I know not whether laws be right
As befits the subject, “Reading Gaol” is “as long as a wet week”. It has a monotonous ring, and repeats its typical phrases again and again. Despite its undoubted power, and stirring appeal, we turn with relief to some of the beautiful short poems.
Then suddenly the tune went false,
Wilde’s widest success with the English public was with his play “Lady Windermere’s Fair”. Other plays, “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Ernest,” together with “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” and the several works above-mentioned can be obtained in Methuen’s Shilling Library. A biography by Arthur Ransome is also published in the same series. Those interested in the subject of genius of this type might with profit read A.G. Stevens. “Red Pagan” but only in conjunction with Shaw’s “Sanity of Art.”
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1856. His father was a noted surgeon, and his mother a writer of some talent. His university life was spent in Trinity College and Oxford. At the latter place he became acquainted with the circle of then revolutionary artists that included Whistler, Morris, and others whose acquaintance we hope to make at a later date. His literary efforts and apostleship to the “Art for Art’s Sake” School occupied the greater part of the remainder of his life but in 1895 his tragedy overtook him. Two years he spent in gaol, and he only survived his release by three years, mostly spent on the Continent under an assumed name.