How Oscar Wilde read John Addington Symonds's 'Studies of the Greek Poets'

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As a student at Oxford, and already something of a classical expert from his time spent with Mahaffy in Dublin, the young Oscar Wilde was often seen (and took care to be seen) clutching a fashionable new publication that influentially promoted the study of classical authors from a literary-critical perspective: Studies of the Greek Poets (1873/6), by the Uranian man of letters, John Addington Symonds. This chapter aims to gauge how the two volumes of Studies informed Wilde’s understanding of ancient culture, as a basis for his own dissident self-fashioning as an ambitious young author and critic; and how Wilde’s increasingly confident critical engagement with the views expressed by Symonds contributed to the development of his own characteristic patterns of argument and style.

The principal sources for this investigation are twofold: two notebooks kept by Wilde at Oxford (Smith and Helfand (eds.), Oscar Wilde’s College Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making, 1989), which contain numerous citations from Symonds’s work; and Wilde’s personal copies of the two volumes of Studies, now held in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York, the margins of which are copiously annotated in Wilde’s own hand. Building on recent work on Wilde’s classicism by Iain Ross, and on the author’s own recent monograph on Symonds and the classics, my chapter will bring the notebooks into dialogue with the archival material. It will give an account of the kinds of annotation practised by Wilde in his copies of Studies, and will attempt to ascertain the extent to which we may reconstruct Wilde’s reading and browsing tendencies as an undergraduate reader of Symonds.

The Oscar Wilde who emerges from this comparative reading is time-strapped and opportunistic — a very different animal from the earnest young Hegelian proposed by Smith and Helfand in the interpretative portion of their edition of the notebooks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he identifies a future direction for his own self-fashioning in Symonds’s stylishly written literary portrait of Euripides as the jaded, humane voice of Athens in decline. However, it is demonstrably not the case that Wilde straightforwardly concentrated his attention on authors represented by Symonds as ‘Decadent’: witness (e.g.) his failure to engage with Symonds on the epigrammatists. Instead, and insofar as one may judge from the marginalia — which are often frustratingly lacunose — the undergraduate Wilde spread his attention quite widely, probably in part due to the requirements of his course of study.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOscar Wilde and Classical Antiquity
EditorsKathleen Riley, Alistair Blanshard, Iarla Manny
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780198789260
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2017

Publication series

NameClassical Presences


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