190 years of The Spectator
13 August 1881
The reading of this book fills us with alarm. It is evidently the work of a clever man, as well as of an educated man, but it is not only a book containing poems which ought never to have been conceived, still less published, but it is almost wholly without thoughts worthy of the name, entirely devoid of true passion, with very few vestiges even of genuine emotion, and constituted entirely out of sensuous images and pictures strung together often with so little true art that they remind one more of a number of totally different species of blossoms accumulated on the same stem, than of any cluster of natural flowers. It is quite a shock to find that so much talent as is needed to produce such a book as this, is not also enough to prevent a book on the whole so worthless, from being written.
Mr. Wilde’s usual mood is one of lackadaisical despair that he does not live in Greece, and see the images with which Greek poetry has filled his mind. He shakes off the dust of this modern world from his feet, in the following very superior sonnet :
This mighty empire hath but feet of clay:
Of all its ancient chivalry and might
Our little island is forsaken quite:
Some enemy hath stolen its crown of bay,
And from its hills that voice hath passed away
Which spake of Freedom: O come out of it,
Come out of it, my Soul, thou art not fit
For this vile traffic-house, where day by day
Wisdom and reverence are sold at mart,
And the rude people rage with ignorant cries
Against an heritage of centuries…
But even in this reprobation of our modern world, Mr. Wilde is not clear. As he does not give us the slightest hint as to the particular forms of wisdom and reverence of which we are stripping ourselves for gain, we do not believe that he has given us the true reason why he thus abjures the world he is so dissatisfied with, and devotes himself to what he calls the world of Art, really, in his case, a world of fragments of coloured glass, hardly even arranged, as the child’s kaleidoscope arranges them, into something like harmonious form.
Mr. Oscar Wilde is no poet, but a cleverish man who has an infinite contempt for his readers, and thinks he can take them in with a little mouthing verse. Perhaps he is right for the moment; but this we can say with some confidence, that the book is the trash of a man of a certain amount of mimetic ability, and trash the trashiness of which the author is much too cultivated not to recognise quite clearly.