Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Oscar Wilde: The Great White Caterpillar

On the final evening of the Happy Days festival in Enniskillen, we walked up to Samuel Beckett's old school, Portora, to see the Yiddish production of Waiting for Godot. This school is in a beautiful position on a hill overlooking the town, Lough Erne and the surrounding countryside.

It was also Oscar Wilde's school, and there are plaques to Beckett and Wilde on the building's front. 

Inside, I was surprised to see Wilde's name on the Victorian notice board naming the boys who won school scholarships. I expected his name to have been erased in 1895, after his disgrace.

Later, I learned from Ellmann's biography of Wilde that his name was erased:

'In 1871, he was one of three pupils awarded a Royal School scholarship to Trinity College Dublin, and his name was duly inscribed in gilt letters on Portra's black notice board. In 1895, the year of his disgrace, it was painted out, and the initials O.W. which he had carved by the window of a classroom were scraped away by the headmaster. Now his name has been regilded.'

The scraping away even of his initials shows just what a folk devil Wilde became in 1895. 

Finding Wilde at a festival celebrating Finnegans Wake was fitting for he's a big presence in Joyce's book - documented by J.S.Atherton in The Books at the Wake, Adaline Glasheen in her Third Census of FW, Franklin Walton in 'Wilde at the Wake', and Sam Slote in  'Wilde Thing.' A search for Wilde on fweet comes up with 57 references. Here are some examples...


Max Beerbohm's caricature resembles a white caterpillar
'Oscar was an overgrown man, with something not quite normal about his bigness: something that made Lady Colin Campbell, who hated him, describe him as 'that great white caterpillar.''

George Bernard Shaw, 'My Memories of Oscar Wilde', 1918  

'(HCE's) detractors...apparently conceive him as a great white caterpillar capable of any and every enormity in the calendar...'  

Finnegans Wake, 33.23

'he, greyed vike cuddlepuller' 241.09

'with a gisture expansive of Mr Lhugewhite Cadderpollard with sunflawered beautonhole pulled up point blanck by mailbag mundaynism at Oldbally Court...' 350.10 

'Oldbally Court' is the Old Bailey, where Wilde was tried in 1895.

‘The Illustrated Police Budget’ 4th May 18
Here he is in the dock, with his co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. Both were sentenced to two years' hard labour under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made 'gross indecency' a crime. Homosexuality had been illegal previously, but it had been necessary to prove sodomy. 'Gross indecency', which was not defined, made any sexual relations between men a crime.

In 1912, Joyce wrote an article on Wilde, which you can read online. Here's his description of Wilde's fall:

'His fall was greeted by a howl of puritanical joy. At the news of his condemnation, the crowd gathered outside the courtroom began to dance a pavane in the muddy street. Newspaper reporters were admitted to the prison, and through the window of his cell fed on the spectacle of his shame. White bands covered up his name on theatre billboards. His friends abandoned him. His manuscripts were stolen, while he recounted in prison the pain inflicted on him by two years of forced labour. His mother died under a shadow. His wife died. He was declared bankrupt and his goods were sold at auction. His sons were taken from him. When he got out of prison, thugs urged on by the noble Marquis of Queensbury were waiting in ambush for him. He was hunted from house to house as dogs hunt a rabbit. One after another drove him from the door, refusing him food and shelter, and at nightfall he finally ended up under the windows of his brother, weeping and babbling like a child.'

Here's another picture, contrasting Wilde on stage in the days of his celebrity with his appearance in the dock.

‘Police News’ 4th May 1895

Wilde, like Charles Stewart Parnell, is a model for HCE as a public figure who suffers disgrace following a sexual scandal.

'He was one time our King of the Castle
Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip.
And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of His Worship
To the penal jail of Mountjoy
(Chorus) To the jail of Mountjoy!
Jail him and joy.'

The Ballad of Persse O'Reilly, p.45

HCE is accused of 'having behaved with ongentilmensky immodus opposite a pair of dainty maidservants in the swoolth of the rushy hollow' 34.18 

Sam Slote tells us that Joyce originally wrote this:

'It is not true that/ Pop Was homosexual/ he had been arrested/ at the request of some/ nursemaids to whom/ he had temporarily/ exposed himself/ in the Temple gardens.'

Slote writes:

'This is a very direct reference to Wilde's father-in-law, Horatio Lloyd. In the 1916 edition of (Frank Harris's biography of Wilde), Harris mentions in an appendix entry concerning Constance Wilde's epitaph that her father had been suspected of, but never formally charged with, a homosexual offense. In a suite of criticisms and corrections to Harris's work Robert RossWilde's literary executor – claimed that Harris was in error: 'The charge against Horatio Lloyd was of a normal kind. It was for exposing himself to nursemaids in the gardens of the Temple." 

A little later in the Wake, 'Sylvia Silence, the girl detective', calls for HCE to be prosecuted under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, like Wilde:

'Have you evew thought, wepowtew, that sheew gweatness was his twadgedy? Nevewtheless accowding to my considewed attitudes fow this act he should pay the full penalty, pending puwsuance, as pew Subsec. 32, section II, of the C. L. A. act 1885, anything in this act to the contwawy notwithstanding.'   61.06

The Act became known as the 'blackmailer's charter', and Wilde was convicted on the evidence of young men who had tried to blackmail him using his letters. Here we get Wilde's name and a reference to the blackmailers:

'has not levy of black mail from the times the fairies were in it, and fain for wilde erthe blothoms followed an impressive private reputation for whispered sins?' 69.02

'an impressive private reputation for whispered sins' is from Frank Harris's life of Wilde:

'Every clever thing that Oscar said or that could be attributed to him, Willie reported in The World. This puffing and Oscar's own uncommon power as a talker; but chiefly perhaps a whispered reputation for strange sins, had thus early begun to form a sort of myth around him.'

After his release from prison, Wilde went into exile in France, using the name Sebastian Melmoth. In this role, he's a model for Shem the Penman, Joyce's self-portrait, who also goes into exile, where he writes Ulysses.

'He would, with the greatest of ease...fire off, gheol ghiornal, foull subustioned mullmud, his farced epistol to the hibruws'  228.29 

(Shem's farced/forced epistle to the higbrows is Ulysses!)


Now to bring on one of the strangest sources of Finnegans Wake, Hester Travers Smith's Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde. The Dublin medium, Hester Travers Smith, claimed to have had a series of conversations with the ghost of Wilde in 1923, using a ouija board and automatic writing. Joyce read her book soon after it was published, in 1924, and was astonished to find that the spirit of Oscar Wilde had read Ulysses - and hated it!

'Miss Beach will send you a book of spirit talks with Oscar Wilde which will explain two pages of it. He does not like Ulysses. Mrs Travers Smith, the 'dear lady' of the book, is a daughter of Professor Dowden of Trinity College, Dublin.'

Joyce to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 1 January 1925, Letters , p.224

You can read the whole book online here. Here's a taste to demonstrate the style:

'Pity Oscar Wilde-one who in the world was a king of life....
(Mrs. T.S.-Why have you come here?) 
To let the world know that Oscar Wilde is not dead. His thoughts live on in the hearts of all those who in a gross age can hear the flute voice of beauty calling on the hills or mark where her white feet brush the dew from the cowslips in the morning.....Being dead is the most boring experience in life. That is, if one excepts being married or dining with a schoolmaster. Do you doubt my identity? I am not surprised, since sometimes I doubt it myself. I might retaliate by doubting yours.'

Here's the passage where Wilde is asked about Ulysses:

'(Mrs. T.S. What is your opinion of "Ulysses," by James Joyce?)

Yes, I have smeared my fingers with that vast work....I gathered that if I hoped to retain my reputation as an intelligent shade, open to new ideas, I must peruse this volume. It is a singular matter that a countryman of mine should have produced this great bulk of filth....Here in "Ulysses" I find a monster who cannot contain the monstrosities of his own brain. The creatures he gives birth to leap from him in shapeless masses of hideousness, as dragons might, which in their foulsome birth contaminate their parent.... It gives me the impression of having been written in a severe fit of nausea....Here we have the heated vomit continued through the countless pages of this work.... I feel that if this work has caught a portion of the public, who may take it for the truth, that I, even I, who am a shade, and I who have tasted the fulness of life and its meed of bitterness, should cry aloud: "Shame upon Joyce, shame on his work, shame on his lying soul.'' Compare this monster Joyce with our poor Shaw. Here we find very opposite poles. For both these writers cry aloud that they have found the truth. Shaw, like a coy and timid maiden, hides his enormous modesty with bluster. Joyce, on the other hand, is not a blusterer at all. In fact he has not vomited the whole, even in this vast and monumental volume-more will come from Joyce. For he has eaten rapidly; and all the undigested food must come away. I feel that Joyce has much to give the world before, in his old age, he turns to virtue. For by that time he will be tired of truth and turn to virtue as a last emetic. 

(Mrs. T.S. You are most amusing)

 I am glad that a poor ghost can bring laughter to your eyes.'

Joyce, despite his many superstitions, did not take spiritualism seriously (he has a very funny parody of a seance in Ulysses). But he would have seen this as another attack on him, and one in similar terms to Wyndham Lewis's in Time and Western Man (Where Travers Smith's Oscar Wilde sees Ulysses as 'vomit', Wyndham Lewis finds 'a record diarrhoea'). He was also particularly sensitive about attacks from his home town - refusing to return to Dublin after 1912 ('a belief in the malevolence of certain people in Dublin remained essential to Joyce's understanding of his own situation.' says Ellmann).

Joyce used Psychic Messages in Bk 2 Chapter Three, which takes the form of a seance held over the sleeping Shaun, now called Yawn, who channels many different voices.  At one point, HCE comes through, speaking in the voice of the spirit of Oscar Wilde. Here he is denouncing the cad, the origin of the gossip of his sin in the park, using words which echo 'Shame upon Joyce, shame on his work, shame on his lying soul.':

'Shame upon Private M! Shames on his fulsomeness! Shamus on his atkinscum's lulul lying suulen...' 535.34

On the next page, we get Wilde's spirit voice even more clearly:

'-- Old Whitehowth he is speaking again. Ope Eustace tube! Pity poor whiteoath! Dear gone mummeries, goby! Tell the woyld I have lived true thousand hells. Pity, please lady, for poor O.W. in this profundust snobbing I have caught. Nine dirty years mine age, hairs hoar, mummery failend, snowdrift to my ellpow, deff as Adder. I askt you, dear lady, to judge on my tree by our fruits. I gave you of the tree. I gave two smells, three eats. My freeandies, my celeberrimates: my happy bossoms, my allfalling fruits of my boom. Pity poor Haveth Childers Everywhere with Mudder!' (FW 535.22-35).

'Pity Oscar Wilde' is a phrase repeatedly used in Psychic Messages; 'Dear lady' is how Wilde often addresses Hester Travers Smith, and 'profundust' is a reference to Wilde's De Profundis.



We had one more encounter with Wilde in Enniskillen. Taking a 7am boat trip across the Lough to hear a Beckett reading on an island, we met a local lady, who recalled seeing Michael MacLiammoir's one-man Wilde show as a girl in Enniskillen. 'He was such an exotic creature to us!,' she said. 'We had no idea about homosexuality. We thought 'this is an aesthete!''

You can see MacLiammoir's show, The Importance of Being Oscar, here on youtube.

Following the success of the Beckett festival, there are plans to give Wilde his own celebration in Enniskillen next May.  Here's festival director, Sean Doran in the Impartial Reporter:

“I have been researching it for a year. It will be so different to Beckett. It will be more popular and more inclusive. Decorative arts will be a major part of it,” he said.

The plan for Sean Doran is for everything to come up smelling of roses -- quite literally. Inspired by Wilde’s love of flowers, he hopes that Enniskillen will become Wildflower Town, with blooms erupting and cascading in such overabundance that the colourful beauty of the town will be a draw in itself. “That is something I would love the town to embrace,” he said.'


  1. There's a second version of the quote that says "great white slug" which seems more likely. The caterpillar version may have been Bernard Shaw's joke?

  2. 'Slug' is certainly a better insult. Perhaps Shaw softened it out of respect for Wilde. Joyce didn't know the 'slug' version, and I wonder what its source is.

    Lady Colin Campbell, another Dublin wit, was herself involved in a sex scandal. See wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Elizabeth_Blood