Oscar Wilde, The Shropshire Lad and Nineteenth-Century Mimesis

oscar wilde

From the late nineteenth century, art no longer imitated nature, but art itself. That is to say, works of art refer not to an abstract Ideal, nor to nature, but to other works and texts. The texts of Wilde are an intertextualist’s dream; they respectively refer to so many texts that the list seems endless and it is almost possible to speak here of an intertextual sublime. Wilde’s conscious reference to other authors is perhaps his weakest spot. Not only had Whistler accused him of ‘plagiarism’ but a contemporary critic called Salome ‘a daughter of too many fathers’. Salome is almost more of a performance of influence than a real play. We find De Musset, Baudelaire, Poe, Moreau, Huysmans, Mataerlink, Flaubert, the Song of Solomon, and more than one reference to Victorian melodrama and even pornography. Salome is an example of how reading changed during the nineteenth century, to take on aspects of the activity of a detective tracing clues and making connections.

This is why the function of the critic also changed. The critic has become an artist in her own right. Rather than the painstaking recovery of an original meaning, which was still the aim of the Romantic hermeneutist, there in the late Victorian time came to be for critic, interpreter and even reader or spectator alike, what Jonathan Culler has called ‘the pleasure of infinite creation’.[1] This pleasure of infinite creation, this Nietzschean affirmation of the play of becoming, is the joyous affirmation of a world with neither truth nor identifiable first origins. This is an artist’s world, and even if Art, despite its best intentions, still resembles nature, it is now possible to execute the most terrible of revenges upon her—by surpassing her fecundity. Mimesis becomes part of the complex process of meaning-creation, and is itself transformed into something which we can call, not without an eye to the problematics of such a notion, hysterical mimesis. This is a mimesis that proliferates wildly, uncontrollably. In our own age we simply refer to this form of mimesis as intertextuality. There is certainly an element of liberation here, for the possibilities of reference are infinite.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray we find an example of such a mimesis. First, Basil Hallward attempts to capture Dorian Gray’s beauty on canvas. Then Dorian expresses the desire to imitate his own image. After this wish is granted, the image begins to resemble Dorian’s spirit. It is also very difficult to say whether the canvas really records Dorian’s actions, or whether he draws a fiendish inspiration from the thing on the canvas. This resembles the double-bind explored by Derrida in The Post Card.

John Stokes[2] likewise identifies a curious circle of inspiration between Wilde, A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He thinks that the stanza

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail tonight,

Or wakes, as may betide,

A better lad, if things were right,

Than most that sleep outside.

may have inspired the Ballad. But as Stokes point out, early 1895 saw a general excitement generated by the Wilde trial that stimulated Houseman into writing A Shropshire Lad. When Wilde received a copy of A Shropshire Lad shortly after his release, he told Lawrence Houseman that it gave him briefly ‘a taste of that rare thing called happiness’. It also inspired him to write his Ballad, which brought about a strange case of intertextual circularity, Wilde drawing inspiration from a poem he himself help to inspire. The artist became not only critic, but muse as well, and then metamorphosed back into artist again.

We find a similar situation in the tale of Narcissus’s pool. After Narcissus’ death, the pool beside which he came to enjoy his own image changed from fresh water to salty tears. Upon receiving sympathy from the Oreads for its loss, the pool asks in wonder:

‘But was Narcissus beautiful?’

‘Who should know that better than you?’ answered the Oreads.


And the pool answered, ‘But I loved Narcissus because, as he lay upon my banks and looked down at me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw ever my own beauty mirrored’ (OW, 844).

It is hard to say whose gaze is the ‘original’ one. There is no identifiable point of origin. Platonist mimesis is replaced with dissemination, which is, after all, only a more complex and sophisticated form of mimesis, a mimesis that goes on ad infinitum. This makes it perhaps more dangerous. For now a problem arises. Incessant multiplication of mimetic impulses can destroy the possibility of meaning. As will be shown in the next chapter, a protective horizon that allows for focus is as essential to the artist/critic as the freedom to express at whim. For the Dionysian to be meaningful, we also need a vibrant Apollo—an Apollo with a whip, to be precise. Otherwise, style becomes lost in mere excess, and we get stuck with Dorian Gray.

[1] Culler, J. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University Press, 1982, p.79.

[2] Stokes, J. Oscar Wilde. Harlow: Longman 1979, p.35.


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