We all nurture certain oppositions in our minds, and one of mine is the oppositions between Oscar Wilde and W.H. Auden
The two men were not contemporaries. We may not think of Wilde as Victorian, but he lived from 1854 to 1900 and that places him squarely in the late Victorian era. As a late Victorian, he — among other artists of his day — were struggling to break free of what was perceived as old fashioned Victorian attitudes. Wilde did so on a personal level, and offered his views about social change, though he did not live to see much social change. That would come later.
Auden was a man of the 20th century, born in 1907, seven years after Wilde’s demise . He lived through the major disasters of the 20th century, though these were not his main literary subject. In a rather infamous manner, he chose to leave England for the United States in 1939 (just as the disaster of war was looming). His subject was more personal. You might call it a persistent attempt at honesty, despite the difficult circumstances that being honest may cause. Indeed, he seemed to exhibit those difficulties in his dress and manner
Ellmann thought that Auden consciously wanted to be the opposite of Wilde. Perhaps he saw Wilde as old fashioned — and perhaps even dishonest. While Wilde delighted in mixing with high society, brought out in this alarming Beerbohm caricature
Auden chose the life of an academic wanderer. Wilde was flamboyant, Auden was rumpled and as he grew older, wrinkled behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.I like this caricature by David Levine
Wilde was full of humor. Auden was ironic and diffident, And he thought that artists should not seek more.
So why keep this difference in mind? Both artists embraced a form of modernity. But the two forms lead us to very different attitudes towards life and society. Wilde’s outlook is essential social., which made his humiliation in court and prison for gross indecency, even more painful. Auden’s outlook is essentially individual. Society may go made from time to time, but that is not the main concern of artists.
And I think we live more in Auden’s shadow, though perhaps, uncomfortably so. Artists are full of rebellion, but without much connection to society. And they tend to be hard to swallow at a cocktail party, at least until they reach that certain age. Even then, they seem to feel the need to identify themselves as outsiders, usually through an odd article of clothing or by not shaving.
I was reminded of Auden’s style, and how different it is from Wilde, when I stumbled upon a collection of short stories by Auden’s student, Grace Paley. Just for fun, here is David Levine’s caricature of Grace
The book is called “Enormous Changes at the Last Moment”. Her story “Wants” starts off this way
I saw my ex-husband on the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
“Hello my life,” I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.k. I don’t argue when there’s real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
The librarian said $32 even and you’ve owed it for eighteen years. I didn’t deny anything. Because I don’t understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.
Notice the existential theme? Reality is out of control and the narrator shows it without complaining about it. It is the norm. People interact who should know each other, but they are separated. The narrator declares that this is the best that can be done. And that is the key point of difference. Wilde thought that we can live at a higher level, even if it means embracing dishonesty — a sin (as society understands the word).
Auden is rebellious, but he is not a sinner. And I wonder if the honesty that he asserts is so essential has uplifted us.