Poisoning as an Artistic Tool in Pen, Pencil and Poison

I was immediately struck by Oscar Wilde’s introduction in Pen, Pencil and Poison. He asserts that “it has constantly been made a subject of reproach against artists and men of letters that they are lacking in wholeness and completeness of nature.” (1093) He also says that it must necessarily be so; “to those who are pre-occupied with the beauty of form nothing else seems of much importance.” (ibid) Thomas Griffiths Wainewright therefore suffers from this lack thereof.

Aside from being a poet of art, and a maker of art, Wainewright was also skilled with the art of poison. Wilde reveres Wainewright’s ability to end the life of others as a form of art, as opposed to prescribing him with insanity within his work, caused by his extracurricular murderous activities. It is true that Wainewright has real passion for art and literature, as he strove to “to see and write brave things” (1094), but his agenda was more precisely geared towards gain of social status.  Wilde describes his dandy-like ways to us, and also his Dorian-esque features—he had an “influence [and a] strange fascination that he exercised on every one who knew him” (ibid). He emphasizes the fact that “a mask tells more than a face […] these disguises intensified his personality.” What I found most striking however was the fact that Wainewright wanted more so to influence people by being “somebody rather than [doing] something.” (1095)

Through this compelling homage to a murderer, Wilde outlines and glorifies a man who actually did not seem to have as much of an effect on British literary society as Wilde thought he did. A description I read online even states that “Wainwright has often been summarily dismissed as a mawkishly sentimental painter of women” (wikipedia).

Wilde’s obsession then truly rests on Wainewright’s aritistic capabilities as a murderer. Poisoning itself can therefore be considered an art within these terms. A man who knows how to poison without being caught or seen, has a certain morbid talent—killing. Wilde even explains that after having been sentenced he “[did not] give up his habit of poisoning […] but his hand seemed to have lost its cunning.” (1105) just like the poet’s hand can lose it’s creative skills.

Wilde finishes with a totally scandalous claim (much like his thoughts on life and nature coming out of art and not the other way around)—Wainewright “had a sincere love of art and nature […] there is no essential incongruity between crime and culture.” (1106). Essentially, Wainewright is the artist of death, his pen, pencil, and poison are all equal talents that can be “honored” (as Wilde would have it) as one. It seems that for Wilde, the artist’s hand creates beauty no matter the tool that creates it, or the violent reality of the finished product. Wilde is glorifying literature, art, and poison, all in the same breath.



1 Comment

Filed under Week 6 Reviews: Wilde's criticism in Intentions

One response to “Poisoning as an Artistic Tool in Pen, Pencil and Poison

  1. Egomet Bonmot

    While I appreciate your view, what do you think of those who view this piece as a work written in the ironic mode? It can also be argued that the pen and pencil, the critic’s tool in the print culture of his time, can also function as a poison. The several jabs pointed at the print media (and I believe Wainewright himself) suggest this link.
    I believe we’re actually using the same text (Collins Complete Works?). There are such blatant statements like on pg 1101: “like most artificial people, [Wainewright] had a great love of nature”; 1094: “Mr. Wainewright often spoke of [Mr. Barney] with much affection as… an admirable teacher, who, while he valued the intellectual side of education, did not forget the importance of early moral training.” That Wainewright had “early moral training” but ended up being a murderer is a typical Wildean subversion, along with discussing artificiality of the upper classes. Here’s another gem (1104-5): “There is, however, something dramatic in the fact that [Wainewright’s] heavy punishment was inflicted on him for what, if we remember his fatal influence on the prose of modern journalism, was certainly not the worst of all his sins.” In this quote he more directly links Wainewright’s false aesthetic to a “fatal” flaw that he inspired in prose (drawing this idea from his murders).
    I think you are right to say that for Wilde, Wainewright is an artist of death–albeit I think for different reasons. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

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