Saturday, 21 April 2018

Oscar Wilde - His Part In My Downfall

If I've piqued your interest with the title of today's blog then we're off to a promising start.

To be earnest with you (which is important, is it not?) I was at a loss to know what I was going to write concerning this week's theme - Oscar Wilde - until Torbay Civic Society came to my rescue. Their blue plaque (which you might see if you ever visit Babbacombe Cliff ) sums our man up quite succinctly, if not wholly accurately. I'll let you read it for yourself...

Of course they skip over his being jailed for homosexuality (in an age when it was a crime), his subsequent exile to Paris and death there in destitution while still in his mid-forties. They also fail to mention that in addition to being a poet and playwright, he was an essayist and a fine novelist - but I like the bit about 'self-styled leader of the aesthetic movement'.

Oscar Wilde's part in my downfall is quite simple to explain. My dad wanted me to do sciences at A-level: chemistry, physics, maths. He had an engineering degree and said it would be far easier for me to get a place at university with science A-levels. We had strong words on the subject, for I'd really enjoyed the humanities at O-level (the precursor of GCSEs), English literature in particular - to the extent that I read quite widely beyond the syllabus. I was determined to go my own way and at the time I think he thought I was making a wrong decision on two counts: tactically - as most universities required A grades for English but offered science courses to pupils with B or C grades; morally - as studying literature was somehow self-indulgent and served no practical purpose.

I had been self-indulgent to the extent of reading and enjoying Wilde's novel 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' during the summer prior to signing up for my A-level subjects and it was a heap more fun than 'Electro-magnetism Explained'. So I followed my own course - English, history, geography - and disappointed my dad who had no interest in great literature. (Nor had my mother for that matter.)

I've never regretted my downfall. I got my A grades and a place at Warwick University to read English. I followed that up with a PGCE and then taught English and drama at a London comprehensive school. I enjoyed every minute of it for several years before jumping over into industry - IT systems as it happens. I think my dad saw that as something of a discreet triumph. (In practical terms, the pay was much better and the stress a lot less.) So, thank you Oscar Wilde (among others).

It seems only fair to the man to feature one of his poems this week. Wilde is most famous for the plays ('Lady Windermere's Fan' and 'The Importance Of Being Earnest' in particular) plus the afore-mentioned novel but he did write some quite powerful poetry, as well as some that hasn't stood the test of time quite so well.

If you recall my blog from last week, I was enthusing about today being Record Store Day. I went into town and came back with a re-mastered vinyl pressing of Joy Division's 1979 debut album 'Unknown Pleasures'. That being the case, what more appropriate Oscar Wilde poem to leave you with than 'The Harlot's House'?

It was probably written in Paris in 1883. I love the imagery, the voyeuristic angle, the complex interweaving of fascination and revulsion, the surprising twist in the penultimate two stanzas and the sense of melancholy that lingers. See what you think...

The Harlot's House
We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot's house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The Treues Liebes Herz of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
'The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.'

But she - she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.
                                     Oscar Wilde (1883)

Thanks for reading. "Be yourself: everyone else is already taken." S :-)


Adele said...

it is a fascinating poem. I love the last stanza.

Anonymous said...

I've never read any of Oscar Wilde's poems but this is good, isn't it.

Anonymous said...

"To thine own self be true."

Anonymous said...

An interesting blog, Steve. You made the right choice! I enjoyed this poem as well.

Anonymous said...

Bravo. Loves the blog.

Anonymous said...

Most entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Very good, Steve.

Steve Rowland said...

We went to see 'An Ideal Husband' the other evening, an Oscar Wilde play that I was not so familiar with. It was excellent and surprisingly topical; not only witty but quite hard-hitting and addressing issues of corruption in public office. Edward and Freddie Fox (father and son) playing a father and son in the play were inspired and Susan Hampshire was timelessly brilliant. It was streamed live from the Vaudeville Theatre in London to cinemas around the UK. 'The Importance Of Being Earnest' will be given the same treatment in early October. Catch it if you can.