Monday 11 January 2010

The Portrait of Mr. W.H. by Oscar Wilde

I've just finished re-reading Wilde's 'The Portrait Of Mr. W.H.'. What strikes me most are the passages where Wilde speaks of our relationship to art as essentially being a form of self discovery or invention - 'Art...can never really show us the external world. All that is shows us is our own soul...' and again: 'Art, as so often happens, had taken the place of personal experience.'

His vision of a Hellenistic English Renaissance, and his attempts to trace the Romantic movement to it are perhaps as fanciful as the story of the boy-actor Will Hews who inspires Shakespeare's sonnets, but I think they are much more than a coded exposition on the joys of pederasty, or male homosexuality in general as some commentators have insisted. Wilde's vision of Hellenism was of a culture where individualism was of the utmost importance, and intellectual communion was the chief aim of human interaction. A far cry from the conformist, 'for king and country' ethos of his times and an important concept in times when I constantly hear of human beings being described as 'resources' and 'assets'.

There is certainly a homoerotic component in Wilde's loving survey of the boy-actors of the Elizabethan era and his characterisation of the 'essentially male culture of the English Renaissance'. Wilde was certainly walking a thin line here in presenting such 'Uranian' material to the readers of Blackwood's, and one would be amused at his cheekiness if not for the fact that his secret life was eventually made public with such tragic consequences.

Wilde weaves a marvellous story of love and betrayal from the sonnets, one which is complete and coherent on its own terms. But his real achievement in this piece is the sheer range of ideas he is able to explore using the identiy of the 'onlie begetter' of Shakespeare's sonnets as a starting-point.

As to Shakespeare's alleged love, intellectual or sexual, for a pretty boy-actor,there is a definite sense of bisexuality at least, running through Shakespeare's sonnets, a fact which made poker-faced Victorians like Hallam regret that Shakespeare ever wrote them in the first place. This is nonsense because one does not need to share an author's sexual orientation to appreciate his or her works, just as one does not need to be in love with the original subject of a love poem to appreciate the beauty of such a verse. We should be glad that these paragons of staunch heteronormative principles have not had their way in excising the canon of any work that smacks of what they'd call 'inversion'; if they had, we would have lost works like the Sonnets and this marvelous story-essay, with its beauty of form and richness of meaning.

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