Read BOOK IV - Chapter II of The Trembling of the Veil, free online book, by William Butler Yeats, on

Shaw and Wilde, had no catastrophe come, would have long divided the stage between them, though they were most unlike ­for Wilde believed himself to value nothing but words in their emotional associations, and he had turned his style to a parade as though it were his show, and he Lord Mayor.

I was at Sligo again and I saw the announcement of his action against Lord Queensberry, when starting from my uncle’s house to walk to Knocknarea to dine with Cochrane of the Glen, as he was called, to distinguish him from others of that name, an able old man.  He had a relation, a poor mad girl, who shared our meals, and at whom I shuddered.  She would take a flower from the vase in front of her and push it along the tablecloth towards any male guest who sat near.  The old man himself had strange opinions, born not from any mental eccentricity, but from the solitude of his life; and a freedom from all prejudice that was not of his own discovery.  “The world is getting more manly,” he would say, “it has begun to drink port again,” or “Ireland is going to become prosperous.  Divorced couples now choose Ireland for a retreat, just as before Scotland became prosperous they began to go there.  There are a divorced wife and her lover living at the other side of the mountain.”  I remember that I spoke that night of Wilde’s kindness to myself, said I did not believe him guilty, quoted the psychologist Bain, who has attributed to every sensualist “a voluminous tenderness,” and described Wilde’s hard brilliance, his dominating self-possession.  I considered him essentially a man of action, that he was a writer by perversity and accident, and would have been more important as soldier or politician; and I was certain that, guilty or not guilty, he would prove himself a man.  I was probably excited, and did most of the talking, for if Cochrane had talked, I would have remembered an amusing sentence or two; but he was certainly sympathetic.  A couple of days later I received a letter from Lionel Johnson, denouncing Wilde with great bitterness.  He had “a cold scientific intellect;” he got a “sense of triumph and power; at every dinner-table he dominated, from the knowledge that he was guilty of that sin which, more than any other possible to man, would turn all those people against him if they but knew.”  He wrote in the mood of his poem, To the Destroyer of a Soul, addressed to Wilde, as I have always believed, though I know nothing of the circumstance that made him write it.

I might have known that Wilde’s phantasy had taken some tragic turn, and that he was meditating upon possible disaster, but one took all his words for play ­had he not called insincerity “a mere multiplication of the personality” or some such words?  I had met a man who had found him in a barber’s shop in Venice, and heard him explain, “I am having my hair curled that I may resemble Nero;” and when, as editor of an Irish anthology, I had asked leave to quote “Tread gently, she is near under the snow,” he had written that I might do so if I pleased, but his most characteristic poem was that sonnet with the lines

                       “Lo! with a little rod
  I did but touch the honey’s romance ­
  And must I lose a soul’s inheritance.”

When in London for my play I had asked news from an actor who had seen him constantly.  “He is in deep melancholy,” was the answer.  “He says that he tries to sleep away as much of life as possible, only leaving his bed at two or three in the afternoon, and spending the rest of the day at the Cafe Royal.  He has written what he calls the best short story in the world, and will have it that he repeats to himself on getting out of bed and before every meal.  ’Christ came from a white plain to a purple city, and as he passed through the first street, he heard voices overhead, and saw a young man lying drunk upon a window sill, “Why do you waste your soul in drunkenness?” He said.  “Lord, I was a leper and You healed me, what else can I do?” A little further through the town he saw a young man following a harlot, and said, “Why do you dissolve your soul in debauchery?” and the young man answered, “Lord, I was blind, and You healed me, what else can I do?” At last in the middle of the city He saw an old man crouching, weeping upon the ground, and when He asked why he wept, the old man answered, “Lord, I was dead and You raised me into life, what else can I do but weep?"’”

Wilde published that story a little later, but spoiled it with the verbal decoration of his epoch, and I have to repeat it to myself as I first heard it, before I can see its terrible beauty.  I no more doubt its sincerity than I doubt that his parade of gloom, all that late rising, and sleeping away his life, that elaborate playing with tragedy, was an attempt to escape from an emotion by its exaggeration.  He had three successful plays running at once; he had been almost poor, and now, his head full of Flaubert, found himself with ten thousand a year: ­“Lord, I was dead, and You raised me into life, what else can I do but weep.”  A comedian, he was in the hands of those dramatists who understand nothing but tragedy.

A few days after the first production of my Land of Heart’s Desire, I had my last conversation with him.  He had come into the theatre as the curtain fell upon my play, and I knew that it was to ask my pardon that he overwhelmed me with compliments; and yet I wonder if he would have chosen those precise compliments, or spoken so extravagantly, but for the turn his thoughts had taken:  “Your story in The National Observer, The Crucifixion of the Outcast, is sublime, wonderful, wonderful.”

Some business or other brought me to London once more and I asked various Irish writers for letters of sympathy, and I was refused by none but Edward Dowden, who gave me what I considered an irrelevant excuse ­his dislike for everything that Wilde had written.  I heard that Wilde was at his mother’s house in Oakley Street, and I called there, but the Irish servant told me, her face drawn and tragic as in the presence of death, that he was not there, but that I could see his brother.  Willie Wilde received me with, “Who are you; what do you want?” but became all friendship when I told him that I had brought letters of sympathy.  He took the bundle of letters in his hand, but said, “Do these letters urge him to run away?  Every friend he has is urging him to, but we have made up our minds that he must stay and take his chance.”  “No,” I said, “I certainly do not think that he should run away, nor do those letters advise it.”  “Letters from Ireland,” he said.  “Thank you, thank you.  He will be glad to get those letters, but I would keep them from him if they advised him to run away.”  Then he threw himself back in his chair and began to talk with incoherent emotion, and in phrases that echoed now and again his brother’s style at its worst; there were tear in his eyes, and he was, I think, slightly intoxicated.  “He could escape, oh, yes, he could escape ­there is a yacht in the Thames, and five thousand pounds to pay his bail ­well, not exactly in the Thames, but there is a yacht ­oh, yes, he could escape, even if I had to inflate a balloon in the back yard with my own hand, but he has resolved to stay, to face it out, to stand the music like Christ.  You must have heard ­it is not necessary to go into detail ­but he and I, we have not been friends; but he came to me like a wounded stag, and I took him in.”  “After his release” ­after the failure of his action against Lord Queensberry, I think ­“Stewart Headlam engaged a room at an hotel and brought him there under another name, but the manager came up and said, ‘Are you Mr. Wilde?’ You know what my brother is, you know how he would answer that.  He said, ‘Yes, I am Oscar Wilde,’ and the manager said he must not stay.  The same thing happened in hotel after hotel, and at last he made up his mind to come here.  It is his vanity that has brought all this disgrace upon him; they swung incense before him.”  He dwelt upon the rhythm of the words as his brother would have done ­“They swung it before his heart.”  His first emotion at the thought of the letters over, he became more simple, and explained that his brother considered that his crime was not the vice itself, but that he should have brought such misery upon his wife and children, and that he was bound to accept any chance, however slight, that might reestablish his position.  “If he is acquitted,” he said, “he will stay out of England for a few years, and can then gather his friends about him once more ­even if he is condemned he will purge his offence ­but if he runs away he will lose every friend that he has.”  I heard later, from whom I forget now, that Lady Wilde had said, “If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again.”  While I was there, some woman who had just seen him ­Willie Wilde’s wife, I think ­came in, and threw herself in a chair, and said in an exhausted voice, “It is all right now, he has made up his mind to go to prison if necessary.”  Before his release, two years later, his brother and mother were dead, and a little later his wife, struck by paralysis during his imprisonment, I think, was dead, too; and he himself, his constitution ruined by prison life, followed quickly; but I have never doubted, even for an instant, that he made the right decision, and that he owes to that decision half of his renown.

Cultivated London, that before the action against Lord Queensberry had mocked his pose and affected style, and refused to acknowledge his wit, was now full of his advocates, though I did not meet a single man who considered him innocent.  One old enemy of his overtook me in the street and began to praise his audacity, his self-possession.  “He has made,” he said, “of infamy a new Thermopylae.”  I had written in reply to Lionel Johnson’s letter that I regretted Wilde’s downfall but not that of his imitators, but Johnson had changed with the rest.  “Why do you not regret the fall of Wilde’s imitators” ­I had but tried to share what I thought his opinion ­“They were worthless, but should have been left to criticism.”  Wilde himself was a martyr in his eyes, and when I said that tragedy might give his art a greater depth, he would not even grant a martyr’s enemies that poor merit, and thought Wilde would produce, when it was all over, some comedy exactly like the others, writing from an art where events could leave no trace.  Everywhere one met writers and artists who praised his wit and eloquence in the witness box, or repeated some private saying.  Willie Redmond told of finding him, to his astonishment, at the conversazione of some theatrical society, standing amid an infuriated crowd, mocking with more than all his old satirical wit the actors and their country.  He had said to a well-known painter during one or other of the trials, “My poor brother writes to me that he is defending me all over London; my poor, dear brother, he could compromise a steam engine.”  His brother, too, had suffered a change, for, if rumour did not wrong him, “the wounded stag” had not been at all graciously received.  “Thank God my vices were decent,” had been his comment, and refusing to sit at the same table, he had dined at some neighbouring hotel at his brother’s expense.  His successful brother who had scorned him for a drunken ne’er-do-well was now at his mercy, and besides, he probably shared, until tragedy awoke another self, the rage and contempt that filled the crowds in the street, and all men and women who had an over-abundant normal sexual instinct.  “Wilde will never lift his head again,” said the art critic, Gleeson White, “for he has against him all men of infamous life.”  When the verdict was announced the harlots in the street outside danced upon the pavement.