[Disponible en español — The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web the following essay, which first appeared in The Explicator 60 (Spring 2002: 142-45. GPL]
n a famous statement to W.B. Yeats Wilde called The Renaissance "my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it" (p. 80). In another much-quoted reference, he spoke of it in De Profundis as "that book which has had such a profound influence over my life" (Letters 471). Nor is the influence limited to a single book. Marius The Epicurean also had a strong impact on Wilde, and during his imprisonment Pater's Greek Studies, Appreciations, and Imaginary Portraits were among the few books he asked for and received (Letters 399). In the present essay I propose to study Pater's influence on Wilde's fairy tales, which is quite powerful but which critics have not so far focused on.
Oscar Wilde's mature literary career began in 1886, when he wrote "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" then followed it up with "The Canterville Ghost" and the fairy tales of The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates. These tales reveal many influences — Hans Christian Andersen, Blake, Carlyle — but Pater is a chief influence on many of them. In De Profundis, Wilde wrote of Marius The Epicurean that in it "Pater seeks to reconcile the artistic life with the life of religion in the deep, sweet and austere sense of the word. But Marius is little more than a spectator: an ideal spectator indeed, . . . yet a spectator merely, and perhaps a little too much occupied with the comeliness of the vessels of the Sanctuary to notice that it is the Sanctuary of Sorrow that he is gazing at" (Letters 476). In many of the fairy tales, Wilde's concern is exactly that of Pater's in Marius — to blend Christianity and the artistic life or aestheticism — with the difference that the emotional content is higher and impresses us more strongly that we are in "the Sanctuary of Sorrow." In others, he is more concerned with the Conclusion [text] to The Renaissance, with its insistent advice that we should devote our lives to the private enjoyment of the best objects of art — advice which he strongly rejects.
"The Happy Prince," for instance, belongs to the latter group. When we first meet the happy prince, he is a beautiful statue, "gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold," his eyes are "two bright sapphires," and "a large red ruby" is fixed on his sword-hilt (271). His position as an aesthetic art object high above the city symbolizes the isolated, carefree, pleasure-seeking life he led before his death, when he lived in a beautiful palace that is itself a work of art. Every evening, he tell us, "I led the dance in the Great Hall" (272). The happy price, then, begins his existence as an aesthete, a follower of Pater's advice in The Renaissance that "to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life . . . . We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among 'the children of this world,' in art and song. . . . Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake" (123). Even as a child, then, the happy prince devotes himself instinctively to a Pateresque life of art, song and beauty, but in doing so he locks out Christian sweetness and purity.
When he becomes a statue, the happy prince gradually recognizes all the pain and sorrow that exists in the city below him, and he develops into a Christian, a child of light. His heart overflows with love and pity, and he sacrifices his aesthetic glory to help others. In this, he is aided by a swallow who undergoes a similar pattern of development. Finally, he strips himself completely of all aesthetic beauty, and his leaden heart cracks when the swallow dies, but both are ready now to enter Heaven, and this is exactly how the tale ends. Christianity and aestheticism do not blend in "The Happy Prince": Pater's Renaissance is seen as an early, selfish stage that human beings should develop beyond, as the selfish giant and the star-child do, for instance, and the remarkable rocket does not. The Soul in Tennyson's "The Palace of Art" — another obvious influence on Wilde's tales — undergoes fairly similar developmental changes. The great problem of the infanta in "The Birthday of the Infanta" is that she does not go beyond the private aestheticism Pater recommended in his Conclusion, but remains monstrous in her icy beauty and cold palace with its many objects of art.
In "The Young King," on the other hand, Christianity and aestheticism blend fully. The young king, the son of an artist, is disowned at first by his grandfather the old king, but is later acknowledged as heir to the throne and brought into the palace. "From the very first moment of his recognition," we are told, "he had shown signs of that strange passion for beauty that was destined to have so great an influence over his life…. The wonderful palace — Joyeuse, as they called it — of which he now found himself lord, seemed to him to be a new world fresh- fashioned for his delight; . . . he would run down the great staircase, with its lions of gilt bronze and its steps of bright porphyry, and wander from room to room, and from corridor to corridor." (213-14).
This crucial passage reveals the young king as an ardent disciple of Pater's Renaissance, constantly in a state of "ecstasy," burning with "a hard gem-like flame" as he privately enjoys the manifold beauties of his palace of art. But his joy is ephemeral. As his nature develops, he becomes terribly aware, in three successive dreams, of the pain and evil that accompanied the acquisition of such magnificent objects of art. The result is that he becomes a Christian, embraces poverty, and goes to his coronation in rags. The realm mocks and opposes him, from the people to the nobles to the bishop, but he presses on and enters the church. The nobles follow with drawn swords, intent on killing him, but God intervenes and crowns him:
And lo! through the painted windows came the sunlight streaming upon him, and the sunbeams wove round him a tissued robe that was fairer than the robe that was fashioned for his pleasure. The dead staff blossomed, and bare lilies that were whiter than pearls. The dry thorn blossomed, and bare roses that were redder than rubies. (221).
Having abandoned the private art world of the Satanic old king, who had secretly murdered his parents, the young king enters a new aesthetic realm, pure and indescribably beautiful. Christianity in this tale is the highest form of aestheticism: the young king abandons Pater's Renaissance and discovers a higher, religious Epicureanism, much as Marius has done when it dawned on him in the "Divine Service" chapter of the novel that Christianity is "the most beautiful thing in the world" (303). Like Marius, in his final stage of self development he blends Christianity and aestheticism. [In this essay, I follow Monsman's reading of Marius: Although Marius never takes the final step of officially converting to Christianity, his death is the prelude to a final awakening and the full experience of God.]
The protagonist of "The Fisherman and His Soul" does the same thing. Initially, the fisherman is fascinated by the beautiful mermaid who sings marvelous songs and lives in a wonderworld beneath the sea, and he casts away his Soul and joins her. By the end of the tale, however, his heart becomes large enough to embrace in love both the mermaid and his Soul: without abandoning aestheticism, he becomes a Christian, and his grave blooms, prompting a change in the wrathful priest, who speaks of all-embracing love and blesses all of God's creatures. Similarly, in "The Star-Child" the star-child's physical beauty returns only when he becomes spiritually beautiful along Christian lines: the two go hand in hand. And in the early "The Canterville Ghost," Virginia's reward for endangering her life selflessly to end the sufferings of the ghost is aesthetic, a box of beautiful jewels given to her by the grateful spirit.
Over and over in the fairy tales, but especially in "The Young King," Wilde blends Christianity and aestheticism in the manner of Marius The Epicurean, and over and over he rejects the advice of the Conclusion to The Renaissance, presenting it as an inadequate initial stage in the soul's spiritual development.
Monsman, Gerald Cornelius. Pater's Portraits: Mythic Pattern in Fiction of Walter Pater. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1967.
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. In The English Literary Decadence: An Anthology. Edited by Christopher S. Nassaar. Lanham: University Press of America, 1999. Pages 1-124.
_____. Marius The Epicurean. London: Macmillan, 1910.
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works. Third Edition. Glasgow: Harper Collins, 1994.
_____. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.
Yeats, W.B. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
Last modified 16 January 2006