2. The Aesthetic Influences on Oscar Wilde
3. Oscar Wilde’s Understanding of Art as Described in his Essays
4. „Impression du Matin“ and „Roses and Rue“ as Examples of Aesthetic Poetry
Impression du Matin
Roses and Rue
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) was one of the most famous writers of the Victorian Age. He was primarily known as a playwright but also created a number of poems, stories and fairytales. Already during his studies at Oxford he developed a style in his art that would later make him the best-known writer of English aestheticism. For Wilde, however, aesthetic sense was more than a concept in art. He rather devoted his whole life to the perfection of beauty. He cultivated a flamboyant lifestyle, supported nonconformist views and had homoerotic tendencies, which made him a kind of media star. The attention directed towards him was often hostile because his attitudes contradicted mainstream Victorian values. These were marked by moral strictness and considerations of usefulness. Oscar Wilde, however, was a hedonist and an individualist. This contradiction and his persistence in defending his views brought him towards the end of his life even to court and to prison, which shows that his attitudes were more than pure provocation.
This assignment deals with the question how aestheticism is expressed in Wilde’s poems. It investigates where the Aesthetic Movement originated and what its principles were. Which theories about art influenced Oscar Wilde and how did he develop them further for his own purposes? What was in his social and artistic biographical background that could have had an impact on his attitudes?
How consequently did he follow his own principles that he often mentioned in his essays and articles? Is it possible to create a pure form of aestheticism and which difficulties occur while trying to do so?
The investigation is based on the poems “Impression du Matin”, published in March 1881, and “Roses and Rue”, published in June 1885. Walter Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873) serves as an important source in the investigation of the theoretical influences on Oscar Wilde’s art. Wilde called it “my golden book” and attended Pater’s lectures in Fine Art at Oxford in 1876. The essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1891) and the fictitious dialogue “The Decay of Lying” (1891) are sources which show Wilde’s own understanding of art.
2. The Aesthetic Influences on Oscar Wilde
Aestheticism was an artistic philosophy that emphasized that the aim of art is only the art itself. The phrase “art for art’s sake” was often mentioned in connection with this movement. According to this philosophy, art could not serve any purpose beyond the individual experience of beauty by its recipient. Thus art was neither to be judged by its moral, political or religious values nor by its commercial success. Otherwise it would be just a kind of propaganda or a vulgar product. Aestheticism insisted on art’s independence from all social backgrounds. Therefore it stood partly in a harsh contrast to the Victorian understanding of art, which emphasized its moral function in society. Aestheticism had some similarity with Romanticism in its celebration of beauty. It was, however, not restricted to colloquial language – in order to transmit individual perception in an aesthetic way the language often had to be highly stylised. Art was not a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, as Wordsworth described the concept of romantic poetry, but an act of creation that depended on the genius of its creator. That is why aestheticism was often criticized as immoral, decadent and elitist.
Aesthetic theory originated in the eighteenth-century thinking of English and German philosophers like Hume, Burke and Kant and artists like Shaftesbury, Hutcheson and Schiller, who emphasized that apprehending beauty requires the disinterested pleasure of a person in the perception of an object. They considered form to be more important than content or meaning concerning aesthetic perception and regarded aestheticism as completely independent from utility. There were often attempts to explain beauty in a rational way and thus to find a general agreement about what beauty is. These attempts were, however, not very successful.
In practice the origins of the aesthetic movement lay in France, where in 1835 Théophile Gautier first articulated the phrase “l’art pour l’art” in the preface of a novel. In England aestheticism reached a certain popularity with Walter Pater’s “The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry” in 1873. While earlier theorists had attempted to find a universal standard for aesthetic experience, he argued that defining beauty in universal terms is useless because “Beauty…is relative”. According to Pater beauty could only be judged from the perspective of subjective perception. In the preface of his work he wrote:
“What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presents, and under its influence?”
Pater also emphasized that the form is more important than the content of a piece of art. Only the form could achieve aesthetic beauty in art and hence, pleasure in life. Thus, Pater pled not only for an aesthetic art concept but more generally for an aesthetic life concept. He urged his readers:
“To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
Such statements attracted many British poets including Oscar Wilde, who called himself a disciple of Walter Pater.
The English aesthetic movement also received some influences from French symbolism. This artistic movement tried to express subjective emotions through subtle, suggestive and highly symbolized language.
They used free and personal metaphors and images, which were not to convey exact meaning but rather create an atmosphere. Many symbolist poets avoided strict metrical pattern and wrote their poems in free verse.
As aestheticism was not only a concept of art but beyond that an attitude towards life, it is quite likely that the conditions of an artist’s life also had an influence on his attitudes towards art. The advocates of aestheticism, however, would probably have rejected this view.
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin. His father was a prominent surgeon and his mother a famous poet. This bourgeois and intellectual background was certainly important for Oscar Wilde’s development. For his good performance at school he won a scholarship at Trinity College in Dublin, where he studied Ancient History. From 1874 on he took courses in Classic Philology and Fine Art at Magdalen College at Oxford. In summer 1875 he went on a trip to Italy, where the landscapes, sights and culture left a strong impression on him. During this journey some of his early poems, such as “San Miniato” and “Sonnet on Approaching Italy”, came into being. A journey to Greece followed during the spring vacation of 1877. From Corfu Wilde wrote to his tutor in Oxford that he wouldn’t be back by the beginning of term but that “seeing Greece is really a great education for anyone and will I think benefit me greatly, and Mr. Mahaffy (a tutor and friend from Trinity College, who travelled with him) is such a clever man that it is quite as good as going to lectures to be in his society”. The trip indeed inspired him to write new poetry that mostly dealt with the decline of the ancient culture and beauty of Arcadia, contrasting it with the rather depressing present.
“Oh Goat-foot God of Arcady!
This modern world is grey and old,
Ah what remains to us of Thee?”
wrote Wilde in “Pan. Double Villanelle”. Returning to Oxford, Wilde was to discover that the university had not quite agreed on his journey. He was temporarily expelled for the next semester and had to pay a fine. Altogether, Wilde describes his years in Oxford as “having a delightful time…any amount of theatres and dining out”. This cheerful but always very cultivated flamboyance in which Wilde already ran free during his years at Oxford was certainly one source of his aesthetic outlook.
 Ellmann 46.
 Wordsworth, Coleridge 291.
 Pease 96/97.
 Denisoff 14.
 Ibidem 15.
 Pater IX.
 Ibidem X.
 Ibidem 250.
 Page 8.
 Fong 257.
 Page 7.