In May 1895, the day before Oscar Wilde’s trial began, W.B. Yeats called at Wilde’s mother’s house in London to express his solidarity and that of ‘some of our Dublin literary men’ with the family. He later wrote of ‘the Britisher’s jealousy of art and artists, which is generally dormant but called into activity when the artist has gone outside his field into publicity of an undesirable kind’. In the years after his death, it became easy to see what happened to Wilde as part of a pattern or a plan, as something that Wilde’s mother, who was an Irish nationalist and a great publicity-seeker, might have dreamed up for her son, or a future he might have determined for himself: a cross between St Sebastian and one of the Manchester Martyrs, he would sacrifice himself for love and expose the hypocrisy of ‘the Britisher’ all at the same time. In this way, Wilde could be read as a literary creation, ‘something sensational to read in the train’. Yeats wrote that he ‘never doubted, even for an instant’ that for Wilde going to prison was the right decision: ‘He owes to that decision half of his renown.’ Tragedy, Yeats thought, ‘might give his art a greater depth’.
LRB 10 May 2012 | PDF Download