Lecture notes: Wilde, “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Lecture Notes:  Oscar Wilde, “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

BRAINSTORMING exercise (see this link): What is one really good question we should ask today that will help us discuss and investigate this essay?


Some discussion targets for this essay:

  • Relationship of art to life, and the values Wilde attaches to each
  • Blurring of lines between history, fiction, criticism, and biography/facts in this essay—relationship of history to fiction, too [see Pater’s line re: impressions, quotes below]—we will see this relationship/blurring again in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”
  • Form of the dialogue in “the Decay,” a monologue in “Pen”—nevertheless similarities in approach and effect here?
  • The essay as a performance, a practice.
  • Role of individualism; how does Wilde conceive of subjectivity? (see also “Phèdre,” “Hélas” to look at that again for question of individuality; cf. also the quote from Picture of Dorian Gray about the ego not being simple but  multilayered thing and Dorian as “a complex, multiform creature” influenced by past “monsters”)
  • Role of style, hybridity of genres
  • dandy
  • Meaning of “modernity” here (cf. “Decay of Lying”)
  • Fascination with crime
  • Temptations of biographical reading. Biographical connections and parallels tempting us again here: Wainewright  “sought to be somebody, rather than do something,” who “recognized that Life itself is an art, and has its modes of style”; “interested in Greek models, is a dandy, etc.

General context:

  • Essay originally published in January 1889, but much revised for publication in Intentions, 1891.
  • “Just what criticism is, Wilde explained by direct and oblique references [in “The Critic as Artist,” the longest essay in Intentions, which was originally titled “The True Function and Value of Criticism: On the Importance of Doing Nothing”] to his Oxford predecessors” (Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, p. 326):
  • Matthew Arnold had written in his influential “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864) that “the aim of criticism is to see the object as in itself it really is” (demand for disinterested curiosity, belief in objective reality of the object).  Ellmann comments: “Its effect was to put the critic on his knees before the work he was discussing.  Not everyone enjoyed this position” (326).
  • Walter Pater [Wilde’s title Intentions echoes and modifies Pater’s famous essay collection title, Appreciations, of 1889—same year in which “Pen, Pencil” and “Decay” were written]: Pater had said in The Renaissance preface, “the first step towards seeing one’s object as it really is, is to know one’s impression as it really is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly.” This signals a shifting attention from the object to the critic; critic more important and also more consciously subjective.
  • In his essay “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde outdid Pater, proposed: “The highest Criticism … is more creative than creation, and the primary aim of the critic is to see the object as in itself it really is not […].”  (The Artist as Critic, ed. Ellmann, 369)
  • Cf. quote from the end of Wilde’s “Truth of Masks” essay:  “Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay.  There is much with which I entirely disagree.  The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything.”  How does this relate to “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”? How to “The Decay of Lying”?

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