Friday 25 December 2015

Christmas Day with Oscar Wilde

Today, as you may have noticed, is Christmas Day, and it was on this day in 1888 that Oscar Wilde invited W. B. Yeats, then aged 23 and living alone in London. to dinner at his home in Tite Street, Chelsea. Yeats later recalled:

". . . a white drawing-room with Whistler etchings, 'let into' white panels, and a dining-room all white, chairs, walls, mantelpiece, carpet, except for a diamond-shaped piece of red cloth in the middle of the table under a terra-cotta statuette, and, I think, a red-shadedlamp hanging from the ceiling to a little above the statuette."

It wasn't entirely smooth-going. Yeats managed to annoy Wilde's young son Cyril by telling him an inept story about a giant, and felt conspicuously inelegant in the presence of his dandyish host. At one point Wilde said: "Ah, Yeats, we Irish are too poetic to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures"

After dinner Wilde read to his guest from the proofs of his Socratic dialogue The Decay of Lying. What wouldn't I give to have been there. Here is an extract from the preamble:

CYRIL: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

VIVIAN: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind I After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once. No, the politicians won't do. 

You can read the rest of The Decay of Lying here.

Details of Christmas Day with the Wildes can be found in W.B. Yeats: A New Biography by A. Norman Jeffares (1988)

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