Three Times Tried

The above appraisal is from a recent edition of the U.S. version of Antiques Roadshow, and features a manuscript sonnet by Oscar Wilde which has recently come to light.

It is not, however, a new poem; it is one from the Wilde canon which he retitled as Ideal Love and presented with a dedication to an acquaintance named Christian Gauss, a young American journalist.

It reads:

The sin was mine; I did not understand.
So now is music prisoned in her cave,
Save where some ebbing desultory wave
Frets with its restless whirls this meagre strand.
And in the withered hollow of this land
Hath Summer dug herself so deep a grave,
That hardly can the silver [1] willow crave
One little [1] blossom from keen Winter’s hand.

But who is this who cometh by the shore?
(Nay, love, look up and wonder!) Who is this
Who cometh in dyed garments from the South?
It is thy new-found Lord, and he shall kiss
The yet unravished roses of thy mouth,
And I shall weep and worship, as before.

As the poem has homoerotic overtones it is of interest for that reason alone as a curiosity. However, I wonder if curiosity can be stretched to significance?

device

The first point of significance arises because the Antiques Roadshow appraiser is only partly correct when he says that Wilde wrote the poem as The New Remorse for Alfred Douglas in 1891.

In fact, the poem had first appeared four years before Wilde met Douglas in a well-known, but short-lived, literary magazine The Court and Society Review under the French title Un Amant De Nos Jours. Here is the entry for that iteration in Mason [2].

amant

After this appearance, as the video informs us, the poem was subsequently associated with Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who published it in a college magazine in 1892. The emergence of the Gauss version now means that the sonnet has possibly made a romantic appearance in Wilde’s life on at least three occasions.

It is worth looking at its three known iterations:

(1)   Un Amant De Nos Jours (1887)

Wilde originally wrote the poem under a French title that translates to “A Lover in Our Time”. Whether this French title was used to mask its meaning we may wish to reevaluate, although it was not unusual for British decadents like Wilde to use French titles for their poems in homage to the literature they admired.

The content, however, is unambiguous—and highly significant—especially when we realize that it was written not only when Wilde was an infrequent poet, but also at the precise time when he is generally accepted to have embarked upon same-sex relationships.

By 1887 Wilde’s wife, Constance, had begun to lose her charm for Oscar, and after the birth of their second son in November 1886 sexual relations between them (according to McKenna) never resumed. We see this reality expressed metaphorically throughout the octave of the sonnet in which Wilde accepts responsibility for the mistake of a marriage which has forced his muse into the closet, and himself into a wilderness. We sense that Wilde is in transition because the roses of his mouth are “yet unravished”.

The importance of this moment for Wilde can be measured by his use of what was to become his most idealized trope, that of the Christlike figure. So we see in the sestet that Wilde shifts the metaphor to a “new-found Lord” and a resolution of a new life in tears and prayer echoing the resurrection of Lazarus when Jesus wept. The whole is Wilde’s paean to sexual reorientation cast in the sacred eroticism of remorse for a past life.

(2) The New Remorse (1891)

In his 1929 Autobiography [3], Alfred Douglas reveals that six months after they met, in 1891, Wilde presented him with a copy of a poem.

Douglas says, “He wrote a sonnet to me, and gave it to me at dinner one night in a restaurant”.  He identifies it as the one from the Methuen edition beginning “The sin was mine, I did not understand”. This would, of course, be the same poem but now referred to as The New Remorse; Wilde had given it a new title when he dedicated it to Douglas.

If Wilde wrote the poem, as seems evident, to consecrate the rite of passage between romantic eras, then it adds weight to its significance that he revisited and retitled the sentiment when he met the archetypal love of his life: his new-found Lord—Alfred Douglas.

Douglas

It is also significant that Douglas thought that the poem was written for him (“he wrote a sonnet to me”).

This suggests that he was unaware of its original iteration, not only when he received it in 1891, but even as late as 1929 when he wrote the Autobiography —despite the original poem’s reprinting in Mason, in 1914. Indeed. Croft-Cooke in his biography Bosie asserts that Douglas thought the sonnet was Wilde’s best and he believed until the end of his life it was written for him. Douglas reinforced this mistaken belief when, again in the Autobiography, he interpreted the poem’s meaning (presumably the unravished mouth) to prove that “familiarities” between himself and Wilde “had not then begun” six months into their friendship. This makes sense because were they already intimate Wilde would not have given him a poem with such a meaning.

The point of all this is that if Douglas thought the poem had been written for him, then it follows that Wilde must have allowed him to believe it.

device

Wilde knew, of course, that he could get away with this little conceit because the sonnet had (suspiciously?) not appeared in Poems (1881), and there was no easy way in those days to know what, if anything, had been published in newspapers four years earlier, particularly one now defunct.

Does this subterfuge betray a motive? Was Wilde keeping this poem close so that he could recycle his message of homosexual awakening? Further, was the poem used on this occasion as a means of seduction? Douglas probably thought so, for in his Autobiography he continues the subject of “familiarities” by confirming that they did eventually begin:

“about nine months after I first met Oscar Wilde as a result of a long, patient, and strenuous siege on his part.”

Nevertheless, Douglas later thought enough about the poem, or about Wilde by then, to include it the Oxford magazine The Spirit Lamp when he became editor, giving the publication, as Peter Raby describes it, a “homoerotic orientation”.

This is how it appeared, and this constitutes its second appearance in print:

spirit-lamp
Wilde and Bosie continued their relationship until Wilde’s imprisonment in 1895. After prison the two were reconciled for a short period but it was never the same, and they parted in 1898.

After that we can allow Douglas the segue—for he concluded his theme of recounting “familiarities” with Wilde by saying that they:

…never resumed after he came out of prison. Wilde always claimed his love for me was ideal…

(3) Ideal Love (1899)

In 1899, Wilde was in post-prison exile in Paris and his unrequited reconciliation with Douglas was over.

According to the provenance in the Antiques Roadshow appraisal, it was at this time that Wilde gave a new copy of the poem to Christian Gauss. Indeed it is signed by Wilde La Varenne, 1899. La Varenne may refer to La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire, now part of the suburb of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés in Paris. Gauss would most likely have met Wilde in Paris through their joint connection with the Dreyfus case [4].

As with Douglas, Wilde could again be reasonably certain that Gauss was not aware of the sonnet. It had only appeared in two minor papers many years earlier when Gauss was very young, and it had not, at that time, appeared in book form. So the opportunity existed for Wilde to personalize the sonnet once more—the question is: how much significance can be attached?

The context of such gestures for Wilde is that it was not unusual for him to inscribe printed editions of his works; nor is it rare for him to transcribe fragments of his work. What is surprising is that Wilde would present a personally dedicated holograph of a full sonnet with such an intimate meaning for a second time to a different person. I believe the document is unique in this respect.

It is also significant that Wilde gave the same work three different titles, each evocatively resonant and biographically relevant. Again, this appears to be unique.

Therefore, was Wilde in search of a new ideal, and would Gauss make for a likely love interest? From what we know about Christian Gauss we can at least infer that Wilde made quite a first impression upon him.

Christian Gauss

Fellow alumnus Edmund Wilson described Gauss with his dog Baudelaire in Paris as a Wilde type: a young man of twenty with blond hair, a green jacket, and a flowing Latin Quarter tie. Wilson’s biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, records that Gauss “bought drinks for Wilde during his homosexual exile”; indeed, Wilson himself recalled Gauss’s stories of conversations with Wilde in cafés where Oscar would be “sitting alone and running up high piles of saucers”.

We can infer more about Gauss’s café encounters with Oscar because, predictably, Gauss soon took to writing, and his most striking  poem of the period is entitled “In Bohemia: A Masque” (1900) which tells of his Parisian life. It is ostensibly dedicated to his male companion on the trip, André Ibels, but the poem’s narrative is set in a drinking establishment with three characters: The Muse, The Poet, and A Voice. Unsurprisingly, it begins: “Shame, Poet, at thy tavern table wake!”

bohemia

In the poem The Muse uses Greek and Keatsian allusion familiar to Wilde to adjure The Poet to forsake Parisian dissipations and become again “one who dared the sheer, steep heights of song”. The Muse chastises the The Poet saying his fevered brain is a only a fantasy from which he can be healed again.

But The Poet is not moved from his tavern existence. He responds:

Better for me the smoke of cigarette
Chasèd by drunken voices,—the grisette
Lolling her ribald song, than wasted days
Your heights of wonder,
promised crown of bays

Compare this verse with one of Wilde’s own from Flower of Love:

I have made my choice, have lived my poems,
And, though youth is gone in wasted days,

I have found the lover’s crown of myrtle
Better than the poet’s crown of bays.

Without too much strain into comparative literature the parallels in the Gauss poem are unmistakeable to the Wilde scholar. Throughout, he uses uncommon words such as mandragore, Mitylene, Calypso, and Sphinx, all of which appear in Wilde but rarely together elsewhere.

Intriguing, too, is that after returning from Paris in 1900 Gaus adopted the Wildean nom-de-plume of Sebastian de L’Isle recalling Wilde’s own Parisian alias of Sebastian Melmoth.

sebastian

The new version of the Wilde poem now titled Ideal Love may have unearthed a new manuscript, but perhaps it has also revealed a new ideal for Wilde. It is tempting to think that in Gauss, who was later a literary critic and professor of literature at Princeton, Wilde had found a significant other.

device

Of course, it is possible that the acquaintance of the two poets was casual and the poem just a generous courtesy; perhaps Gauss met Wilde in passing and, knowing of his repute, asked for a souvenir of his work. Also, we must remember that Wilde was in financial straits and the manuscript may simply have featured in some ingratiation towards more cognac and absinthe. That would all seem reasonable had Wilde not given the poem a new title and dedication.

Therefore, given the new perspective of this poem’s history, we must allow for the possibility that Wilde did again have in mind an expression of love or seduction. Or, at the very least, Wilde harbored a personal reason for re-dedicating the poem.

What we do know is that the sonnet fits Wilde’s purpose, for he liked to associate his ideal with the personality of Christ—a man who is perfectly and absolutely himself—and it would be entirely like Oscar to find such an ideal in a man named Christian.

But, secretly, I hope not, lest his idealizing ended again in regret, as seems likely.

For, as sacred as his salvation was in A Lover in Our Time, and as Christlike had been The New Remorse for his love of Bosie, it might make for a sad analogy before his death if his Ideal Love had now denied him thrice.

© John Cooper, 2016.


[1] The words silver and little are correct and are as they appeared in the original Un Amant De Nos Jours in 1887.

However, the manuscript of The New Remorse (the Douglas version) is slightly different. In drafting the poem for Douglas, Wilde mistakenly wrote silver for both these words. Then, upon realizing the word silver appeared twice, he amended the MS by changing the first silver to leaden. What he should have done was change the second silver to little.

The Gauss version as Ideal Love reverts to the correct original.

Unfortunately, the wrongly corrected Douglas version is the better know as it was the text of The New Remorse that was used in The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Robert H. Ross (1908).

remorse

[2] Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, (1914) LONDON | T. WERNER LAURIE LTD, by Stuart Mason (pen name of Christopher Sclater Millard).

[3] The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas (1929; 2nd ed. 1931); retitled for the American version as My Friendship with Oscar Wilde (1932).

[4] Gauss was in Paris to cover the Dreyfus affair as a journalist. Wilde’s connection is covered in Ceremonies of Bravery: Oscar Wilde, Carlos Blacker, and the Dreyfus Affair, J. Robert Maguire, OUP Oxford, 2013.

[With thanks to Michael Seeney].

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

8 thoughts on “Three Times Tried”

  1. Hi, John, thank you for getting me to read this poem several times as I wended my way through your post.
    It seems to me the poem might originally have been addressed to Wilde’s wife after they split. Clearly at the end he is talking about two people making love while he looks on and weeps. He does not address himself as “love.” And why would he be weeping if he was being made love to.
    No it is assuaging his conscience for leaving his wife now that he realizes he was “mistaken” about his sexuality and he imagines a more appropriate lover for her.
    Do the dates fit?
    Thanks, anyway. Always fun to read your scholarship.
    I just read “The Last Englishman” by Roland Chambers – the story of Arthur Ransome – who prevailed, early in his career, over Bosie in court in a suit brought by the litigious Douglas involving “Reading Goal.” Are you familiar with the book? A great read.

    Peter G

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    1. Thanks Peter,

      I don’t see any imagery of lovemaking, and neither do I think Constance in the piece directly. But as Michael also mentioned Constance and the narrative in general I shall address the content under his thread.

      Thanks for the heads-up about Chambers. Looks interesting. Yes another Wilde figure leading a double life! There’s small picture of Ransome on my web site here:
      http://oscarwildeinamerica.org/quotations/nothing-to-declare.html

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  2. John You’ve mistyped 1877 (for 1887) twice, which led to some confusion! I still think you’re over thinking this, but even if textual criticism is valid I don’t understand the sestet in the context you give the octet. If you’re right about that it would suggest to me that Oscar thinks Constance is going off with someone else, or that some pre-Bosie infatuation is going off with someone else before Oscar’s had a chance to do anything about it. And what about the Biblical feel of the whole thing (Fong and Beckson suggest Isaiah)? Michael

    From: Oscar Wilde In America :: Blog To: michael.seeney@btinternet.com Sent: Tuesday, 1 March 2016, 23:42 Subject: [New post] Three Times Tried #yiv0851102663 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv0851102663 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv0851102663 a.yiv0851102663primaryactionlink:link, #yiv0851102663 a.yiv0851102663primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv0851102663 a.yiv0851102663primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv0851102663 a.yiv0851102663primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv0851102663 WordPress.com | John Cooper posted: “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFqW0DByOfsThe above appraisal is from a recent edition of the U.S. version of Antiques Roadshow, and features a manuscript sonnet by Oscar Wilde which has recently come to light.It is not, however, a new poem; it is one ” | |

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    1. Thanks for the feedback.

      Let’s look at the Biblical feel first. I started by looking at Beckson’s Isaiah reference and found it valid. There is a clear textual parallel, and then the question whether there is any parallel of meaning. The latter is more difficult, so I’ll just outline the textual similarity first.

      Read Isaiah ch. 63 v. 1-6:
      http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Isaiah+63:1-6

      It begins:
      ‘Who is this that comes from Edom,
      from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?
      Who is this so splendidly robed,
      marching in his great might?’

      Compare Wilde:
      But who is this who cometh by the shore?
      (Nay, love, look up and wonder!) Who is this
      Who cometh in dyed garments from the South?
      It is thy new-found Lord,

      In the Bible (read with Ch. 62) the savior comes to bring vindication to the city of Jerusalem. He is stained red from trampling grapes but this is a metaphor for the crushing of people in his wrath.

      So Wilde uses this imagery in the 1887 original to signify his own salvation. His new-found Lord may not be a person, it may be the captain of his soul. But I think it represents, as I said in the blog, his reorientation.

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  3. A narrow note on Guido Ferranti play. It’s too bad public opinion (which is driven by the press) was focused on the man and not the work. Perhaps Wilde was at fault here, by feeding the free press with his eccentricities (the Trump campaign) as a means of self-promotion. In doing so, one looses the control and outcome. And perhaps being forced to change the play’s name and gender didn’t work to his favor – offering today’s followers pause and cause for more reflection on such matters. As always, thanks for making me think about it.

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